Self-consciousness versus self-awareness


In meditation we can slip into a flow state — that is, one where we’re un-selfconsciously and happily absorbed in an activity. What we’re focused on in a state of meditative flow are the experiences that are arising in meditation itself. So in a meditative flow state we’re focused on the experience of flow itself.

This is puzzling if we assume that “un-selfconsciously” means “unmindfully.” After all, isn’t meditation supposed to make us more self-aware? The thing is that self-awareness and selfconsciousness aren’t the same thing — at least not in the way those words are being used here.

When we’re selfconscious, and therefore unable to be in a state of flow, what happens is that a stream of anxious, irritable, or grasping thoughts is arising. Those thoughts place us in an antagonistic relationship with our experience: we don’t want our experience to be what it is. There’s awkwardness. We mentally trip ourselves up. There’s no flow, because we can’t become absorbed in an experience that we’re unwilling to accept.

Mindfulness reduces this antagonism in a couple of ways.

First, we learn to allow experiences to be present, so that we’re no longer trying to push away experiences we don’t want, or to grasp after those we desire. This leads to more of a sense of internal harmony.

Second, as we continue being mindful of our experience, antagonistic thoughts become less frequent. We’ve chosen, in effect, not to feed them, and so they begin to die away. Eventually they can stop arising (temporarily, at least) and we enter a deep flow state, which in Buddhism is called jhana (or dhyana in Sanskrit).

At the same time, mindfulness is by definition a state of self-awareness. We’re not just having experiences, but we’re aware that we’re having those experiences. So instead of just being stressed or angry, we’re aware that stress or anger are present.

So mindfulness is self-aware, but unselfconscious. Even though we’re more than usually aware of our experience, there’s a reduced sense of ourselves being in opposition to our experience, and thus there’s a reduced sense of self. We’re allowed to forget about ourselves while simultaneously being more aware of our experience.

Flow states can emerge in daily life as well. When we’re immersed in some pleasant activity like baking bread or writing, we’re also unselfconscious because there’s no antagonistic thinking. There’s no emotional or cognitive barrier between us and what we’re doing, and so this too is a flow state. At such times we’re probably not deeply mindful, because we’re more focused on the task than on ourselves — our bodies, thoughts, feelings, etc. — but we’re not totally unmindful either. There’s some kind of awareness that we’re happily engaged, for example, but we may also be doing some pleasant daydreaming in the background — thinking that’s unrelated to the task we’re performing.

As we practice, we learn to bring more mindfulness into such activities. In a way all we’re doing is deepening the flow state. Irrelevant thoughts are less likely to emerge, and so we remain more deeply engaged in what we’re doing.

Our mindfulness can also help integrate more parts of us into the experience. When I’m writing, for example, I’ll become more aware of the feelings I’m having with regard to the words as they appear, and this gives me a qualitative sense of the quality of my writing. I can more deeply enjoy the experience of writing.

I’m also more open to subtle cognitive connections that my mind might make, so that my writing’s more intuitive. It’s as if, as I’m writing, parts of my mind outside of consciousness are quietly whispering, “Here’s something relevant you might want to add.” The more mindful I am, the more likely I am to notice these whispers. And so in a state of flow I’m no longer writing. It’s as if the writing is flowing through me.

In the kind of flow state I’d describing, the sense of there being a “me” fades into the background. We’re mindful, self-aware, but un-selfconscious.

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What consciousness wants

What does consciousness want? I don’t mean what do “you” want. I mean, what is consciousness fundamentally about? What is it trying to do? What is its nature?

Consciousness is undefinable. We can look at the brain with fancy machines and see activity going on. We can study neurons and understand the physical processes by which, for example, vision takes place. But how actual experience comes to arise on the basis of this is something that isn’t understood. This has been called the “hard problem” of explaining consciousness because scientists and philosophers don’t even know how to begin to think about this.

The philosopher and neuroscientist Alva Noë has said that consciousness is co-extensive with life itself. This doesn’t define consciousness, since we can’t even define life. But Noë’s argument is that all life has some kind of awareness of and ability to respond to its environment.

I believe that the consciousness that animates an amoeba or a yeast cell is fundamentally the same as that of a human being. There is only one kind of consciousness.

Yes, there is a difference as well. Although there is only one kind of consciousness, it performs in different ways depending on the nature of the being in which it is manifesting. An amoeba lives in a relatively simple world that includes food and toxins. It moves toward and engulfs food, and avoids toxins. It almost certainly doesn’t have thoughts or emotions. A wolf has a more complex nervous system, sense organs, and body. It has things like feelings, a sense of social hierarchy, needs for affection and companionship, etc. It is capable of more developed memories than an amoeba. It can plan and anticipate the future. A human being is more complex still. Our nervous systems are capable of seeing meaning in life, for example, and we’re able to construct stories, culture and technology (memories passed from generation to generation).

But the same fundamental consciousness is expressing itself through these various channels. Consciousness is like water or electricity. The water that flows through a stream is the same “stuff” as the water that flows through the trunk of a redwood tree, and the electricity in lightning is the same “stuff” that flows through our nerve cells when we remember our first date. Similarly, consciousness is all the same “stuff” whether it’s manifesting in a paramecium or a person.

Consciousness will naturally try to express itself as fully as it can, within the confines of the physical structure in which it’s manifesting. But the way in which consciousness expresses itself is always going to be limited because of those structures.

Consciousness, I believe, fundamentally wants to flow with the least resistance possible. When I say that it “wants” this I don’t mean that this is a real desire, any more than water has desire when it flows downhill. Water, if given the “choice,” will flow along a wide straight channel rather than along a narrow, twisted one. Electricity does the same, “choosing” to flow along a wire with low resistance, rather than one with high resistance. “Choice” here is just an analogy. All we’re saying is that this is how water and electricity behave.

I believe that consciousness “wants” to “flow” freely. Unfortunately, in the human brain/mind it rarely gets a chance to do this. The structure of the human brain leads to internal conflict, because various “modules” have different strategies. For example, in order to promote survival (and thus continued wellbeing) the amygdala prompts us to behave aggressively when it detects a threat. On the other hand, the neocortex recognizes that aggression frequently creates conflict and thus threatens our wellbeing. These are mutually incompatible aims. Consciousness is thus like water where the flow is turned back upon itself, causing turbulence. We experience this disturbance as dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, or suffering. Craving, aversion, and delusion are all sources of this turbulence.

The ultimate state of peace to which consciousness “aspires” is the calm state that Buddhism calls “equanimity,” where the mind has been harmonized, and consciousness doesn’t react to stimuli in ways that cause unnecessary disturbance. This state is also called “compassion” because relating compassionately to other manifestations of consciousness is the most peaceful way that it can function socially. This state is also called “wisdom,” because consciousness at rest recognizes that craving and aversion are simply flawed strategies for finding peace, and because consciousness expressing itself in one physical form recognizes how consciousness as it manifests in other physical forms is simply trying to find peace.

In a neurologically complex being, such as a human being, consciousness has the ability to observe and assess its own functioning. It also has the ability to change the physical structure through which it operates. When consciousness observes that, for example, compassion is a valid way to move towards a state of peace, and that aggression isn’t, the brain changes in ways which make compassion more likely to be expressed in the future. New habits create new neural pathways. Abandoning habits leads to neural atrophy in unused circuits.

Consciousness does not take place within a self, but the self—or the idea of the self—takes place within consciousness. One of the things that happens in a complex consciousness is that stories are created in an attempt to explain the past and predict the future. One of those stories is that there is a “self” which contains consciousness, owns consciousness, and of which consciousness is a part. In reality, of course, the “self” happens within consciousness, as a simulation.

When a consciousness recognizes that one of the limits that has been hindering its expression is this imagined self, it can then begin to test the illusion. It can look and see that there are no stable experiences. All experiences are impermanent. Thus, there is no way for a stable self to exist. Eventually the imagined self is seen as what it is, a story representing something that doesn’t exist. At that point there is a major shift in how consciousness operates, and in its ability to move toward a state of rest and peace. We call that shift “Awakening.”

Other aspects of the functioning of the being are also questioned—not just whether craving and aversion can ever work at bringing about peace (it’s been largely seen that they don’t), but whether in fact there is any “thing” to be grasped or avoided. Progressively, craving and aversion cease to function, because they’re no longer taken seriously. The very idea of separateness (I versus the world, me versus you, experiencer versus experienced) fades away.

Gradually, consciousness is able to express itself more and more freely, without painful turbulence, and just as gradually, consciousness moves toward a state of graceful expression characterized by wisdom and equanimity, and expressing itself as compassion.

We can summarize all this by saying that when the physical universe becomes complex enough, life (and consciousness) arise. Give a star enough time, and it starts to wonder why it isn’t happy. Part of the universe ponders the rest of the universe, and wonders what it’s all about. Why am I here? What happens then I die? How can I become happier? How can I have more of the experiences I like and fewer of those I don’t like? It thinks of itself as separate.

Give this apparently separate part of the universe a bit more time and it’ll learn to untangle, unwind, and relax the habits that have created its sense of separateness. It then becomes simply another part of the universe, flowing, clearly aware, without delusions of separateness, and with the compassionate desire to help other deluded expressions of consciousness to reach the same state of rest, peace, and wisdom.

Just Sitting is an important part of this process. It allows consciousness the time and space to become aware of its own functioning, to create the conditions for removing the “turbulence” of craving, aversion, and delusion, and so to come to a state of pure, unobstructed flow.

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Absolute cooperation with the inevitable

tara-brachThe modern-day mystic and Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello once said: “Enlightenment is absolute cooperation with the inevitable.” This statement struck a deep chord within me. It seems to me that what he meant was to be absolutely open to life as it is.

Think about the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean that flows from the tip of Florida up along the eastern seaboard. If you were to put a straw in the water, aligned with the Gulf Stream, it would move with the flow of water. The water moves through it and carries it along on the current. Everything is aligned; it’s total grace. Now, if it’s misaligned, and it’s not moving with the flow of water, it gets spun around and moves off course.

Aligning ourselves with the flow of aliveness is an essential part of our mindfulness practice. Like the straw, if we move out of alignment, we’re moving away, spinning about, in reaction…in some way unable to be one with the flow of grace. So we seek to stay aligned, letting the flow of life move through us.

What are some ways that we remove ourselves from the channel through which our life flows?

I noticed this happening the other day when I was driving home. I have my own accustomed speed, and the person in front of me was going much, much, much slower. You know what that is like, don’t you? Now, I wasn’t in a rush to get somewhere. I wasn’t on my way to the airport to catch a plane, but it didn’t matter. I was driving at a speed that felt really different from my preferred speed. I was experiencing impatience and anxiety, and it was building. Everything in me was leaning forward. I felt like I couldn’t be okay unless the situation changed.

So I paused, mentally. I recognized that I had a demand that something be different than it was at the moment, and I tried to let go of it. This example is a small thing, but this happens in many ways, some small and some much larger, in our human experience. We get caught in feeling that happiness is not possible unless things change. Consequently, we cause ourselves tremendous unhappiness, because we’re demanding that things be different.

It’s interesting to notice how this happens. I think it arises from our social conditioning about what brings happiness. We are led to believe that we need certain things to be happy: “If I can get this job,” “If I can earn this much money,” “If I can buy a house in that neighborhood,” then I will be happy. Or we might think, if only I were healthier, or thinner, or if my boss quit so I could have a different boss, or if I had a different spouse…and on and on.

We wait for things to be different in order to feel okay with life. As long as we keep attaching our happiness to the external events of our lives, which are ever changing, we’ll always be left waiting for it.

What if we were to pause and align ourselves with the current?
What if we moved with the flow of what is?
What would that mean for you in your life, right now?

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Aligning with what is here is a way of practicing presence. It allows us to respond to our world with creativity and compassion.

What is actually happening is that we’re opening to the universal intelligence, the universal love that can flow through us when we’re aligned. When the straw is aligned with the current, the Gulf Stream flows through it. When we’re aligned with the flow of our lives, there’s a universal wisdom and love that flows through us, which is our true nature.

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G.K. Chesterton: “The true object of all human life is play.”

G.K. Chesterton

The bodhisattva moves through life elegantly, “in the zone” and in a state of playful “flow,” and he can do this because he has abandoned any clinging to the idea of self. “Let go of your sense of self; you have nothing to lose but your suffering,” Bodhipaksa tells us.

I think Chesterton was absolutely right when he said that the object of life is play. The best kind of life we can live, I believe, is one in which we love, laugh, and learn: one in which we can be serious without being down, and can laugh irreverently at life’s difficulties without being facetious or trivializing them.

One problem is that we sometimes get into a habit of deferring happiness. We know we’re overdoing things now, taking life way too seriously and failing to nourish ourselves. We know that our needs aren’t being met. We’re aware that we’re stressed. That we’re over-working and spiritually under-nourished. But we live in hope that in six months, or next year, or after this big project is over, we’ll be able to start enjoying life. But we’ve been through this before, and we forget that six months, or a year ago, or before the last big project, we thought exactly the same thing. And here we are. And life’s still hard.

Because we think it’s “over there” we don’t try to create heaven here

Chesterton seems to fall into this way of thinking as well. In the full quotation he adds, after “The true object of all human life is play” the words, “Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.” Even if he’s being metaphorical, the metaphor serves to distance us from happiness. Here we are on earth, with all our worldly cares. Heaven is somewhere over the horizon, and because we think it’s “over there” we don’t try to create heaven here.

Buddhist language sometimes can be interpreted in the same way. We talk about the life of frustration, stress, and suffering as being samsara. The literal meaning of samsara, “the faring on” suggests a long, hard slog. And then there’s nirvana, which is the “extinction” of delusion and suffering (although not, as some people used to argue, individual existence).

Also see:

Nirvana, as the end of suffering, is the beginning of an unshakable state of peace; a joyful equanimity; a wise, compassionate, and serene way of being. It’s rather like earth and heaven, and often I hear people talk about the two as being separate places.

Other Buddhist metaphors reinforce that notion; we talk about practice as being “a path” and what does a path do but lead from one place to another place. And if there are two places they must be separate, and they may even be separated by a great distance. Some Buddhist schools (mainly now extinct, interestingly enough) used to see nirvana as being immeasurably far off, and only attainable after millions of lifetime of practice. While that may have emphasized how amazing enlightenment is, it also made it hard to take it seriously as a realistic goal.

Nirvana is ‘arriving’

But earth and heaven are not places separated in space. It’s not that samsara is one place and nirvana is another. There’s only one reality, and we can see it in different ways. We can look at the world we live in with a mind that’s always seeking — always “faring on” through experiences, never really resting in the present moment, never really appreciating what’s going on right now, but always hoping that things are going to be better later on. We’re always thinking about what we’re going to do next, but when we get to that next thing we’ll be thinking of what’s coming after that. There’s always the promise of fulfillment, but it never quite arrives because we’ve not arrived. That is samsara.

And nirvana? That’s the same world — the world of children and commuting and deadlines and international conflicts — but seen with a different attitude. Nirvana is “arriving.” It’s letting go of the “faring on” attitude. It’s letting go of looking for fulfillment just over the horizon, and realizing that fulfillment is possible right here, right now.

Spatially, samsara and nirvana are the same place, but mentally they’re very different. When we talk about “the path”, we’re talking purely metaphorically. We’re not fundamentally talking about getting away from our current lives, but about changing our relationship to our current lives.

Samsara and nirvana are the same reality seem through different mental lenses

Sometimes, to be true, there are times when we do have to move on from a job, a relationship, a place, in order to find happiness. Sometimes the particular circumstances we find ourselves in are so difficult that we really need to get out. But in the end we realize that we take ourselves with us. We carry our own attitudes along with us wherever we go, and it’s all too often those attitudes that get us into difficult circumstances in the first place. Eventually we have to let go of the idea that happiness will come from getting circumstances in the outside world right, and accept that happiness will come by getting our attitude to life right.

As Sunada points out in her post, Playing our way through life, the life of the bodhisattva — the person who is “arriving” in life rather than “faring on” — is characterized by play, or līla. Līla means not just play, but grace, beauty, elegance, and loveliness. The idea is a life where we deal with difficulties gracefully, where our attitude is beautiful, where find elegant solutions to problems, where we appreciate the loveliness in others.

Another aspect of līla is “mere appearance, semblance, pretence, [and] disguise.” This doesn’t mean that spiritually advanced Buddhists are running around in disguise! It suggests that the bodhisattva is living in the world in a different way from the rest of us. Samsara and nirvana, remember, are the same reality seem through different mental lenses. The bodhisattva is living in the same world as we are, but isn’t confined by the same self-imposed limitations and assumptions. Crucially, the bodhisattva is aware that protecting our “selves” is the worst thing that we can do for ourselves. Let me give an analogy to explain.

Let go of your sense of self; you have nothing to lose but your suffering.

Imagine a basketball player “in the zone” or in a state of “flow.” There’s no thought of “Oh, here I am, and I have the ball, and there’s the opposition, and there’s the hoop, and I have to get past all those guys and score.” Instead, what you have is the complete absence of any sense of self and other. There’s simply a playful and spontaneous response to circumstances. He’s flowing around the court in a state of līla, with grace, beauty, elegance, and loveliness. Now consider the basketball player who does think all those things: he’s dead on the court. He’s wooden, because he’s either afraid or trying too hard for results. He’s paralyzed by his own self-consciousness and his awareness of others as obstacles who might stop him getting what he wants.

Bodhisattvas are very like that, but in terms of life as a whole rather than just what goes on on a basketball court. There’s freedom from the idea of there being beings to help, which is how the bodhisattva can help them. He can also help them because he has no idea that he is helping other beings — he just responds spontaneously, in the zone, in a state of flow.

Two different attitudes within one reality. It’s up to us to choose. And we can make remarkable changes in our attitude in the space of a moment. When we let go of our mental rigidity, relax, and create a mental space for creativity to appear, we can very quickly find a sense of play, of līla, bubbling up from within. Let go of your sense of self; you have nothing to lose but your suffering.

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