Exploring Consciousness

Uncategorized Dec 4, 2021

This article is an adaptation of a talk I gave at a conference in India….it starts off with a sensing exercise, which the reader may or may not wish to do.

Read it here or watch on YouTube:

Sense into the temperature, shape and weight of your right foot; are you able to sense your foot directly and immediately?  or are you only visualising it, or seeing it from your head?    Can you just be with the sensations, and let them come to you – its like putting your foot in the bath – thinking about it doesn’t help. Simply opening up to and trusting the sensations you feel allows YOU to be here in this moment..

I want to say something about where I’m coming from as a preface to this talk – because exploring consciousness is an intimate personal journey of feeling into what is true for you through all the layers of  ‘me’; all the way down to the truth.

 In the beginning it can be very confusing because the ‘me’ is estranged from the truth, and lives in the total conviction that we are a separate being. We find ourself already looking through the eyes of this separate ‘me’ who longs to find the truth, but cannot find it, and does not know where to look. Only if the ‘me’ melts down: like a little boat made of ice, can it know the ocean.

 I spent twenty years teaching children on a one to one basis, who had been excluded from school – usually because they had done something violent like pulling a knife on a teacher. They all had thick files, including psychological assessments and usually a diagnosis from a range of authorities. They included clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, neurologists, headteachers, and policemen. 

I was struck again and again that the authorities didn’t  listen to the children I taught. They looked at them from the outside as if they were objects. They diagnosed them, by identifying a clinical syndrome, such as depression, or ADHD, or oppositional defiant disorder, according to a checklist of symptoms. They believed they had access to objective truths about the children, which did not require them to listen to or understand the children.

Consequently, in the children’s experience, they simply felt they had been judged, that they must be bad, and that no-one had listened to them.

One of the children I worked with was eight years old, and was excluded from school because he had nearly strangled a classmate. It took three women to pull him off. When I went to his home to teach him, I asked him, ‘What sort of animal is your anger ?’ He said immediately, ‘It’s a lion that kills its prey!’ The next week, I said to him, ‘How’s your lion?” He said, ‘The lion and me think differently, he goes ‘boo’ and I go ‘eek!’ Those of you who know about internal family systems theory may recognise a firefighter and an exile.

This has always stuck in my head, because in that moment he knew his own mind, and trusted his  experience. In knowing and speaking for himself, he was able to step back into mindfulness, and recognise the lion and understand that it was a part of him who could be very angry but had a job to do –  to protect the boy in him who went eek! It was a breakthrough for him to dis-identify from the lion, and recognise the scared little boy in him, it was trying to protect.

This immediate direct knowing and being for himself was so different from what happened to most of the children I worked with who were diagnosed by authorities who didn’t listen to them, so that the children felt alienated and judged and labelled from the outside, by someone who didn’t know them.

One of my favourite sayings from the Buddha is, ‘You can’t come to the end of suffering unless you come to the end of the world, but you can’t come to the end of the world by travelling’. 

What does this mean ?  I was flying somewhere, and my pen suddenly leaked all over my shirt. It had never done this before, and I was curious. ..

Buddhists say we construct our experience of reality moment by moment as we contact an object of the senses through a sense organ, whilst interpreting and shaping what we know through the lens of a perception. Perceptions – in this case  – objectified and reified my pen so that I believed it was an object out there, existing independently and belonging to me.

 Seeing the ink leak over my shirt, allowed me to recognise my pen did not exist independently as I  had thought. It was subject, like everything else, to a network of causes and conditions. In this case because the atmospheric pressure on the plane was different, it behaved differently.

It is astonishing how deeply humans construct perceptions of reality which they believe are real and exist independently. Take the perception ‘England’, for example, you cannot find ‘England’ anywhere; it does not exist. Nonetheless, people are deeply attached to their imagination of what it means, and are even willing to die for these abstractions.

 Ignorance in Buddhism means believing something exists separately; in order to penetrate our ignorance we need to recognise the preconceived assumptions we have which prevent us from seeing clearly.

Philosophers like David Chalmers have dubbed consciousness the hard problem – actually once you drop all the preconceived assumptions about what it is – it is obvious and simplicity itself. But you have to drop the deepest and often most unconscious assumptions – the most important of which is the belief in me as a separate entity, and the world as out there.

Western Science focuses on measuring the world we experience through our senses. Even when it uses instruments such as microscopes and telescopes, it  never gets outside of our senses. Scientists have been so wary of the biases, opinions and preconceived assumptions that the subjective is associated with, that they have forgotten their own knowing – they have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Yet scientists plan their experiments in their minds, and know the data they produce with their own subjective knowing. 

Consequently, the conventional western paradigm of consciousness tries to explain it in terms of biochemical processes. A paradigm is a set of assumptions,  a set of crystallised perceptions, with which our own knowing can be so fused, we quite forget we are already looking through a point of view based on arbitrary assumptions. Because we have split off the subjective and only value the objective world, it appears devoid of being and meaning. We have enshrined the rational mind as the sole guide to what is true without beginning to understand its drastic limitations. It is not an accident that although western societies have been greatly enriched through the use of technology,  the level of distress and unhappiness in our societies has soared as a reflection of our alienation.

Anil Seth, the professor of neuroscience at the University of Sussex, where I went so many years ago, describes in his new book ‘Being You’ that scientists used to believe in principles like phlogiston – which was believed to be at the root of anything that burned – which gradually yielded to biological and chemical explanations. Consequently, he put aside any idea of explaining consciousness outside of biochemical reactions and from this arbitrary standpoint, claims that consciousness is a sophisticated way of predicting what’s going to happen next.

It is true that it is profoundly challenging to take our own knowing seriously, to dare to explore the immediacy of consciousness outside of the paradigm of western science. It appears tricky – if you ask yourself – 

 who is saying my name ?  you can say myself, but the knowing jumps back before our attempt to objectify it. Do this now – say your name to yourself slowly and watch how it appears from nowhere and vanishes into nowhere. Who or what is knowing your name ? The second you try to grab this knowing it vanishes – it cannot be objectified.

 In the bible – actually I think it is originally an ancient Indian story – there is a parable of five blind men who are asked what an elephant is. One gets hold of its tail, and says it is like a rope, another gets hold of its ear and says it is like a leaf, another gets hold of its leg and says it is like a pillar, and so on. We end up with a series of attempts at grasping what the elephant is from the outside, but only succeed in reifying and objectifying parts of  the animal. 

But what is the whole elephant ?

 My experience of the social sciences and psychology is that in the absence of a theory of Mind, in the absence of recognising and understanding how crucial consciousness is – in the absence of an understanding of the whole elephant, they take up arbitrary standpoints, which grasp at consciousness from the outside. 

 RD Laing, in ‘The Divided Self’ says, “Even the same thing seen from different points of view, gives rise to two entirely different descriptions and the descriptions give rise to two entirely different theories, theories which result in two entirely different sorts of actions.”

Carlo Rovelli, an Italian quantum physicist writes that the long search for the ‘ultimate substance’ in physics has shipwrecked on the relational complexity of quantum theory, and that perhaps an ancient Indian Buddhist thinker – Nagarjuna – can provide the conceptual tools physics needs.

Many religious traditions have known for a long time that the truth of Being cannot be objectified – it can only be approached from the inside by diving into the direct immediacy of knowing.  ..

So how can we explore consciousness, in a way that honours our own knowing? As a baby we have what can perhaps be said to be an original innocence and since consciousness partly operates as a camera and as a tape recorder, we record impressions of who we are, and what the world is. 

 These impressions are structured around the belief that we exist as a separate entity formed in response to our parents. Consequently, as we come to adulthood, we find ourselves locked inside a whole mass of mental representations with which we are deeply identified. These pictures of ‘me’ are alienated from the direct immediacy of knowing. From here we imagine consciousness is just a function of the brain, and fail to explore it directly or take it seriously. 

Another way of putting this is that we learn to define, signify and regard ourself from the outside, through the lens of our mental representations. For example, I am a white English elderly psychotherapist, and I have learnt to see myself through these concepts.  I shall call this – after Almaas – conventional knowing.

Many Indian gurus such as Nisargadatta and Ramana Maharshi were very clear about what it takes to die to all the stories in one’s mind about who one is and dive deep into the truth beyond the mind. Following Almaas – I shall call this basic knowing; this is simply being the direct and immediate knowing stripped as far as possible of all assumptions.

 I have had my own taste of this kind of diving into being the knowing and it may help you understand if I tell you some of my own experiences. Given that we are experiencing a psychedelic renaissance, it is worth stating that fifty years ago, I took some LSD. 

I should say LSD is a very volatile drug, and I am not recommending its use without great caution. Perhaps I was lucky: I remember blinking and swallowing and suddenly finding myself as no longer being the separate entity I had taken myself to be but inside the entire universe and utterly at ease. Aldous Huxley called this ‘Mind at Large’. 

I saw everything was the One Mind, and yet I could see how people were at the same time at cross purposes with themselves and fixated on the idea they are a separate entity, and from that place trying to resist the flow of life.  

Hubert Benoit says, “We are already here and now awakened but this truth is hidden from us because our normal habits and reactions are constantly at work, and they set up a vicious circle within us. Our rumination and inner monologue prevent us from awakening to our Buddha nature. We, therefore, believe we lack essential reality and so we are obliged to imagine in order to compensate for this illusory defect.

 I believe that I am separated from my own ‘being’ and I look for it to  reunite myself with it. Only knowing myself as a distinct separate individual, I look for the absolute as a distinct individual; and I want to affirm myself-absolutely-as-a-distinct-being, as being unique. This effort creates and maintains in me, at the level of phenomena, my divine fiction, my fundamental claim that I am omnipotent as an individual.”

 Later having discovered Zen, it seemed to describe the truth I had experienced: I did many Zen retreats and became locked into an all-consuming doubt about who I really am. After years of struggle, I came to an awakening on retreat about ten feet away from a famous Chinese monk – Master Sheng-Yen. It felt like I had fallen a long way and that I was everything and nothing. Everything was arising and passing away, out of and back into a silently shining mystery. 

The first words out of my mouth were: ’I can see! 

 The Chinese monk who began the meditation tradition I studied with: Master Rinzai, says:

“Followers of the Way, mind is without form and pervades the ten directions:

In the eye it is called seeing, 

in the ear it is called hearing. 

In the nose it smells odours, 

in the mouth it holds converse. 

In the hands it grasps and seizes,

in the feet it runs and carries. 

Fundamentally, it is one pure radiance; divided, it becomes the harmoniously united spheres of the senses. Since the mind is nonexistent, wherever you go, you are free.  ..”

This is not to ignore neurochemistry but to say the brain acts as a conduit for this mystery. MDMA for example may release serotonin and soften up the default mode network at the same time as allowing the mind to expand and know itself on a deeper level.

 So now we’re going to do a brief exercise, one of the purposes of which is to begin to distinguish basic knowing from conventional knowing.  Almaas writes that “we need to become comfortable with not-knowing, we have to embrace not-knowing – not as a deficiency or a lack but as the manifestation of basic knowingness. Not-knowing is itself knowing. Otherwise what we experience will be the repetition of the same things we have known in the past and believe we know.”

The thoughts we have in our mind often contain all kinds of assumptions which are  unprovable or arbitrary. More importantly, we believe we are separate from the situation we are In.

 However, If we sense into our bodies, not think about them but directly know them we can begin to taste mindfulness, or basic knowing.  It is like putting your foot in the bath to check the temperature, thinking about it will not help, directly knowing and being fully in touch with the flow of sensations will.

To the extent we can do this without what the Heart Sutra calls ‘thought coverings’ we can begin to trust the knowing.

Exercise:  on sensing the right foot – see if you can fully sense into your foot, and know the temperature, and the weight and the shape of your foot directly. Without leaving your foot bring your consciousness into the right ankle, and th calf, the knee and up the right leg moving across to the palm of the right hand moving slowly at the top of the right arm jumping across to the top of the left arm going down the left arm down to the left hand then go into the left pelvis left buttocks left leg left foot.

 Seeing and hearing with the whole body: allow sounds to come to you; allow the world to come to you, rather than you going out after it. Receive the sounds of the work just as they are.

Open to all your physical sensations,  the feel of your clothes, the pressure of your chair, any physical tensions or discomfort in your body, then include all the thoughts and the feelings that are there. See how much you can allow yourself to open up to the way it is..

Rest in the field of everything you experience and then pose the question: ‘What experiences all this ?’ Do not try to answer the question just pose it and see what happens 

So this is the traditional way of aligning with our own knowing, of developing mindfulness, of learning to contemplate all that arises and passes away as changing conditions in nature. 

However, my first Zen teacher was very unusual in that she emphasised that the passions are the Buddha Nature. She did not emphasise teaching mindfulness because mindfulness is so easily contaminated by the mind, and turned into a mental activity which actually gets in the way of the depth of surrender and simplicity required for the spiritual eye to open. She emphasised facing the waves of our passions directly, suffering them out and allowing them to take us down into our ocean nature.

Whilst I was a novice Zen monk in Japan I had a dream of a ghost and an elephant. The elephant was under a concrete arch and covered in mud, but it had a golden Buddha in its trunk. I was looking through the eyes of the ghost and afraid of the power of the elephant. This dream was  a gift, a very difficult gift – a snapshot of how the infant me had split himself, turned to the outside, and taken his strength prisoner.

 I eventually discovered the teachings of A. H.Almaas. The very first words he ever said to my group were, ‘This is not an integration of the psychological and the spiritual, but a recognition they come from the same place.’

It was very helpful to me that Almaas is so clear that anger – which I had mistaken the power of the elephant for – is fundamentally the strength of true nature or the Buddha,

In order to know that the passion of anger is strength, it requires one to strip away all the storylines it has been associated with and simply experience its heat and power. 

If one  has the courage to do this, it gives one the strength to separate from being the child of our parents. As Almaas says it is like going from one star system to another star system to separate from our mother, and to stand on our own  two feet. In so doing we separate from all the identifications we have taken ourselves to be, and find ourself able to see clearly through the eyes of the Buddha.

 A.H.Almaas as he calls himself has published about 19 books and has evolved a form of inquiry which is about knowing and discriminating the truth of our experience. It often involves tuning in to the felt sense of the body. As we know the felt sense of the body immediately and directly, it is a doorway into deeper qualities of the heart, the will and the mind. This enquiry allows us to recognise and discriminate different implicit qualities of true nature.

For example, I have a cat who lies around in the most nonchalant fashion with all four legs in the air which to my somewhat harassed mind is utterly disarming. I find myself feeling this tender appreciation in my heart. If I sense into this directly it feels like a sweet tender appreciation. Very often we treat consciousness as a function so that we focus on the object we are knowing,  but fail to open up to the consciousness itself. In this case you can know the quality by being it directly – knowing yourself as tender appreciation. Almaas calls this quality of love the pink, because he directly experience its colour and taste, which he says is like candyfloss.

Some years ago I watched England play Sweden in the World Cup. We scored a goal, and I found myself along with the crowd experiencing a huge sense of expansion and joy. This is the subjective experience of winning, where the ego glimpses the unity of Life. Of course, the crowd attributed this sense of expansion and unification to the label England is winning.

 Durkheim, the French sociologist believed that  what he called the ‘collective effervescence’ of crowds, was responsible for the phenomena of religion.

 What if we turn this observation on its head, and see that we get a  glimpse of our true unity in feeling the power of the crowd, but misinterpret it because we see it through the lens of our identification with our nationality. You can see how easily patriotism  becomes a  mask for a collective narcissism. A society is also a set of assumptions, that we often uncritically identify with.

 Narcissism in this case means conflating our own entitled hopes and fears with the unconscious unity of the whole – then we see through the lens of an inflated ‘me’. There is a medical students’ joke –  but it happens to be also a very accurate observation – that “neurotics build castles in the air, psychotics live in them, and the psychiatrist collects the rent.”  The castle in the air functions as a kind of airbag that we identify with which keeps us separate and unable to be fully with reality as it is.

The inflated ‘me’ is actually very fragile because it isn’t real and is desperately trying to imitate our real self, and is terrified of being exposed. 

Hence it is frequently accompanied by an idealising transference in an attempt to shore itself up by leaning on others who are believed to be strong.

The fragile ‘me’ can also be shored up by looking outwardly for appreciation and validation in the mirroring transference. In this way we create images of ourself. We often project these idols onto a leader.  As John Calvin put it : ‘the heart is a perpetual idol factory’.

I often find clients may be touched by something but resist feeling how moved they are because they fear losing control.  If we  allow ourselves to lose control and cry, for example, we fall out of our minds and experience the crying directly as a powerful release – a wave that can take us back down into becoming one with the  ocean.

 It takes honesty and courage to feel disappointment, as we are dying to the entitled hopes we have been identified with, but as we do this, our hearts begin to expand and recover their capacity to love  again.  As Trungpa put it, ‘Disappointment is the chariot of the Dharma.’

If we stay with disapointment, we can feel sweetness in our own heart directly and immediately. This is very different from knowing oneself through the objectifying lens of the mind.

 As I work with clients, I find they have a vestigial awareness of this kind of love but rarely allow themselves to feel it fully and directly; one of my clients told me that he felt rosy towards his son and it took a few questions to help him really land in the depth of his love and tender appreciation for his son. Enquiry opens up the space to feel more and more deeply into what is true for you.

 So, this is a revolutionary way to begin to unpeel true nature using basic knowing.

I have found as a client in the world of psychotherapy that the only thing that seemed to heal me are moments of grace that soften up and infuse my ego structure.

 To give an example I had a client who took her needs prisoner as an adult and would only eat once a day. 

However she had a wonderful marriage with a man she loved dearly and who loved her deeply; unfortunately he died at the end of a long and painful illness.

 As we enquired, and as she could allow her sadness room to be felt  directly and immediately, so she could surrender the layers of defence, and feel the lack and longing in her heart.  As she stayed with this, love began to emerge in her heart and she could feel and know her own sweetness and tenderness.

The following exercise is an opportunity for you to pay attention to the felt sense of your body as you share an important moment in your life with someone else. Of course it is important for the one who listens to be simply present, and as open as possible, and allow yourself to be touched by the other person. Do not in any way offer criticism or judgement. 

 Share an important moment of your life in pairs and how it affected you. Take five minutes each. As you share, sense into your body and tune in the feelings that arise. See if you can open to the feeling and know the feeling by being it, rather than just looking at it through the lens of the story you are telling.

For example, one of the women in a group who did this exercise before talked about her anxiety before giving birth, however once she saw her baby she felt this delicious certainty that everything was right and it  moved all of us.