“[I]n many contexts the term ‘world’ is used not to refer to the external world, either in the sense of what we see, or of the planet earth in space, or of the universe as a whole, but, rather, to stand for or signify the ‘world’ of an individual: one’s world.”
– Hamilton-Blyth, Sue. Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder (Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism) (p. 93). Taylor and Francis.
I think that’s what phenomenologist Husserl’s concept of ‘lifeworld’ was meant to convey, in the first half of the twentieth century. The Nikaya Buddha used the word ‘loka’ in a like fashion. It could be used, as we do, to refer to the bigger worlds – our peopled world, or our planet, or our universe – and our world of immediate experience. We say “I really get his world.” Just as, when we speak of the ‘world-view’ of the ancient Greeks (or whomever), we are referring to how they experienced the situations they were in – the way they ‘had’ the bigger peopled world, planet, and universe, as experience.
It was this that the Buddha was primarily interested in: How we can become attuned to, transform, and eventually transcend our individual ‘world within the world.’ Where else does the ‘tangle within a tangle’ get untangled?
It seems to me that he approached this by indicating the kinds of experiences we will find as we become familiar with our ‘loka.’ (This ‘loka’ concept, as I see it, was later elaborated into the ‘maṇḍala’ practices of later Buddhism. To know your own subjective world in all its dynamism is to acquaint yourself with a mandala – that is, with a experiential sphere that has (subjectively remember) a centre and periphery.)
The four mindfulnesses – physical body (with death), feeling-tones, mind-states and the dynamics between them – are one such model of what you will find in your ‘loka,’ your experiential world.
The model of the ‘six senses’ (which I’m expanding into seven, to update it) is another important perspective on one’s world as one directly has it in experience. And, so that’s why I’m going into the fine detail of the sensory fields – as a means to becoming intimately equated with our experienced life, both as we imagine it is, and how it actually is.
There’s a sense of something precious that comes with the history of use of the word ‘loka.’ According to Sue Hamilton-Blyth, the word predates the Buddha and is Vedic: “It’s earliest meaning was a “free, open space” or a “safe, sacred space.” We needn’t lose that meaning, though we’ll not be staying with that alone, but will be delving deeply into its metaphorical meanings, and the problems that inevitably come with our ‘world within the world,’ as it usually functions. So, here, notice that the word ‘space’ goes with ‘loka.’ Space itself, in our personal world, is a sense worth exploring, which brings a richness of meaning.
In line with our understanding that language is about experiencing in situations – and not about establishing ultimate realities, existences, and things – I’m going to make some statements about the living actuality of sensory living. The experience of the fork with food making its way to your mouth; of lifting the kitchen trash and walking to the door. The actual experience of the hot sun, or the freezing wind.
The following statements can’t claim that reality is ultimately the way we have it; but, even with that being so, even so, our speaking is not arbitrary. We can’t just say any old thing and expect to get a healthy relationship with life, as some people like to think. Yet, we have to talk about the heat and cold, and about fork, food, and trash. In this approach, I contend that speaking and thinking works even better when we have some relationship with the implicit ‘more’ which informs our saying, and which is carried forward by our saying; a relationship with the wildness that the big life process is. There can be, by the virtue of this body’s participation in reality, a relationship of concepts to the ‘non-conceivable’ universe, a relationship which will give us a more harmonious life. And, this is possible, because we are that life, and we co-create that bigger life.
Mary Hendrix stated (in the video Thinking at the Edge in 14 Steps) the main problem of our present ways of thinking: “The concepts that we use in our society are based on science and ‘things,’ and they have built into them structures that drop out the lived human body experience. So that anything we go to think about, if we are using this kind of prevalent concept, it has already dropped out the living person.”
Ironically, I find this among spiritually-inclined cultures, too, when speaking to people about the role our body plays in spirituality. To many meditators, the body is a ‘temple,’ a ‘vehicle,’ a ‘way-station.’ It’s a thing that serves consciousness. It’s a junior partner of lesser intelligence than the process they prefer to exalt, expand, purify, or dwell wholly within; that is, ‘consciousness.’ It’s ironic that we lose the person when we separate ‘mind’ from ‘body.’
With such topsy-turvy concepts, our experience of the living body becomes tragically limited; limited by the very concepts which, from a developmental point of view, the body gave rise to in the first place! The particularly ephemeral process of thinking has tragically reduced its own matrix (the body as a local process of the vast universe) to a secondary role. This split from nature skews everything human in the direction of our ego systems. Isabella, in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (II.ii), sums the situation up beautifully:
“But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep.”
Read ‘thought’ for ‘man,’ and ‘body’ for ‘essence,’ and you have the roots of our modern crises: we’ve left our own nature out of the picture. As a by the way, here, with Isabella’s word ‘glassy,’ she points to an experienceable ‘body of light’ or ‘body of clarity’ – an experience which we’ll look at that later. At this stage my point, though, is that words like ‘glassy.’ ‘light,’ ‘clarity,’ and ‘transparency,’ are not words people associate with the body; and that this is because we’ve become dissociated from our actual body, and treat it as a secondary intelligence, rather than as primary. A healthier, more experience-near approach is Gendlin’s:
“There is the absolutely best laboratory – as far as we know, at least – in the whole cosmos; which you can have access to; because the absolute best laboratory in the whole cosmos – which has a direct line into whatever everything is – that’s a human being. And you have that with you. So anything that comes out of that laboratory, has great possibilities – even if it looks like a very small thing.”
– Eugene T. Gendlin, Thinking at the Edge (Five Tape Video Series), opening to Tape 5, Gems from Gene (produced by Nada Lou).
This point to a very different body than is commonly imagined in our society. I’m not dismissing or denigrating the scientific portrayal of our body, however. That approach is powerfully useful. Nevertheless, we have to find a balance in approaches. For the sake of our humanity, and for the well-being of all the planet’s species, our emphasis in the context of inner transformation needs to move to the primacy in our experience of the living body. This sentient body is the primary process of a human being, the functioning of which gives rise to your ‘world,’ your ‘lifeworld.’ The extraordinary world of the ordinary – the bodily activities of walking, sitting, singing, speaking, eating, defecating, and even simply breathing – can, with intimate knowledge, reveal levels of ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ that have no limit.
The ‘world’ of this actual, living, time-conducting body is exactly the action of the bigger life interacting with itself. And, as a part of that interacting life, the body produces representations about its fluid, non-graspable situations – images and abstractions about body-environment interaction, and which are meant to carry life forward – even though the body itself is non-representable. The body, as life, is non-ikonic.
“The body is a nonrepresentational concretion of (with) its environment.” – Gendlin, Eugene. A Process Model (Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy). Northwestern University Press.
So, to say it again: the situation of being one ever-changing, mortal individual in an immeasurably vast ever-changing cosmos is very intimate. It’s your actual sensing; a sensing which is because the vast universe IS. The irony, though, is that we do in fact have a ‘little brief authority,’ in that we are individually and alone responsible for the health of our ‘world within the world.’ Through the activity of the senses and intellect, to participate successfully within the larger world, the body creates its own world.
As we investigate the actual day-to-day living of our body-intelligence, in all its conditions – while delighted, dissociated, despairing or depressed – we become can familiar with how we create the world via our ‘world.’ It’s happening right here. The most reliable ‘laboratory’ is this your very body – the only place practically devoted to conducting these efficient investigations in the natural science of the person. This, indeed, is where your experience of the world happens. It is the path. Says the Nikāya Buddha, “It is right here in this fathom-long mortal body (Pali: kalebara), with its perception & thoughts, that I say that there is the world, the origination of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path of the cessation of the world,” (AN.4.45)
“[N]either time nor place affects the fact that we are common experiencing human beings.” – Hamilton-Blyth, Sue. Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder (p. 61).
The understanding is cross-cultural and perennial that we don’t live anywhere else but in or as our present experiencing; and that we can at least live well, if not flourish, by minimising our dissociation from present experiencing.
It comes as a surprise to some that what ‘present’ means can be debated; but I’ll leave it imprecise, for now. What’s not so contentious is the importance of sensory experience for flourishing; and, as you have seen, Buddhist culture includes “mental content” as a sensory dimension.
In the following, I refer these sensory dimensions collectively, sometimes as ‘experience,’ and sometimes as ‘experiencing’, and sometimes as ‘lifeworld.’ They represent the range of ‘happenings’ occurring in any moment or situation. Before I give a kind of model – that is, before I detail the ‘seven’ – to aid tracking the happenings of this open and yet precise sphere of Being, I want to give a picture of the power of such models, vis-a-vis death and deathlessness.
This contextualization will briefly introduce:
– the importance of personal experience in the context of Early Buddhist liberation;
– the concept of ‘lifeworld’;
– one’s individual world-within-the-world (loka);
– the nature of sensory life;
– the implicit order in one’s lifeworld (the presence of a greater responsive order, implicit in the ‘All’ of experiencing);
– mindfulness in the context of this non-conceptual aspect of reality, and its the open-ended flow;
– and, the power of Early Buddhism’s invitation to experience ‘space’
That should be enough of an introduction to what you are experiencing right now!
The Importance of Starting from a Non-Manifold Perspective
So, why did I consider this intro necessary, if the various dimensions of sense are here now and verifiable? Because usually we look without a context which would help us see the new. Have you heard about that great experiment about the gorilla on the basketball court (which I would say was an experiment in mindlessness, or mindless ‘relevanting)? It was carried out at Harvard University. (That’s not meant to be harsh, but descriptive of how we are much of the time.)
The experiments asked their subjects to watch a short video (see it here) in which six people pass basketballs around. The subjects were asked to keep a track of the number of passes made by certain of the people in the video. During the ball-passing, a gorilla walked into the middle of the action, faced the camera and beat his chest, then left. Half the people who watched the video, counting the passes, and did not see the gorilla!
Of course, that wouldn’t happen to you and I, would it? Or would it? What are we missing that is right here in front of our noses which we are missing moment to moment? The unbroken flow of experience might be the gorilla in our personal world. The intuitive, holistic dimension of experience is as invisible to the untrained person as that gorilla was to those subjects. What if what is relevant to us is limiting of life-opportunities? Would we know it?
Normally, we experience our various senses as broken up into separate ‘channels.’ However, it’s possible to experience them differently – as undivided; and as a result of such an experience, how we relate to the ‘world’ around is transformed. We realise that the ‘objective world’ and our senses inter-relate in such an inextricable way that we can’t actually tease out where our senses end and the world begins. This is the territory of the insight into interdependence of an everything in everything (ev-eving) kind.
The Nikāya Buddha emphasised that we need to know our sensory experience (including mind-states, remember); because, any sense that there is an objective ‘world’ to be experienced is directly dependent on our six (as he taught them) sensory processes.
The primary focus of Nikāya Buddha’s training was on immediacy, on how each of us perceives our personal world now; because to live wisely, we must know our experiencing as it actually is. His point was that what his teaching had to be tested by each of us, in the laboratory of this very body:
“Practitioners, do you not speak that which is known by yourselves, seen by yourselves, found by yourselves?”
“It is well, Practitioners! You have been instructed by me in this timeless teaching which can be seen here and now and which invites your testing; which leads to the goal [of inner freedom]; and can be understood individually by the intelligent.” – Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta (MN 38)
That’s the first point.
The questions that follow [in Visions of Knowledge] advocate no particular view. Their assumptions are open to being challenged; their conclusions should be considered provisional. If we ask in ways that are incisive and clear, our questions do not have to lead to answers. In asking openly, we create support for knowledge, and then our inquiry cannot fail.” – Tarthang Tulku, Visions of Knowledge
Openness is a kind of knowing upon which our inquiry can depend. Indeed, openness intrinsically has a fine quality of inquiry. And, the need for openness is applicable, too, when we make statements (as distinct from questions, mentioned in this quote). If we are dwelling openly, our statements – negative or affirmative – can act as prompts for further inquiry; even if that inquiry is only the act of appreciation. Open interchange carries a conversation forward (as the combination of ‘inter-’ and ‘change’ implies).
As a writer of Dharma, I dance between saying what I know to be so and the openness that in itself is not sayable. Although the openness is always present, I have to zig-zag. I am mindful of not turning the saying into some kind of fixed knowledge – which is to create fictions in the service of my self-image. The awareness that this living is open by nature, helps me avoid being dogmatic. (Sometimes I hear the student come into my voice, and I know to pause.)
The dilemma of such knowing is nicely put by the Nikāya Buddha (in the Kālakarāma Sutta): “All the things that people and gods know, I know too. But I don’t conceive of any thing in or behind what is experienced.” (Don’t quote it. This is a summary for our specific purpose; yet, the gist is accurate.) He follows this up with: “This snag I beheld, long ago, upon which humankind is hooked, is impaled, which is: ‘I know, I see, ‘tis truly so.’” How will we live, in ordinary situations, and not be run by our opinions, beliefs, principles, or tenets; that is, by our ‘dogmas’?
If such a radical change of heart is to be optimally secured in humanity – safely come upon, and yet remain fresh in its transformative freedom – whatever is claimed to be ‘true’ or ‘known’ can’t be imposed from without; not by gods, nor culture. For such a change to be a “turning-about in the deepest seat of consciousness” (Lankavatara Sutra), it has to come from directly knowing our experience.
When our senses are not grasped at – and we thoroughly let them be in their own reach and range – there’s a fundamental revolution in knowing, where even to speak of separate senses is not correct. This realization is the fruit of openness. Openness is the way and the fruit. Clearly, this kind of self-knowledge is radically intimate. It’s an open connection to a basic quality of life which is ‘already-always’ available.
(By the way, while reading “seat of consciousness,” how did you register the word ‘seat,’ in yourself, as you read? Did you vaguely imagine it as something static, fixed, or located; as somewhat thing-ish? A solid base? That would be natural, wouldn’t it, to give it spaciality? However, we want to leave such terms open to a process-use, which won’t establish any such ‘seat’ as actually findable. The word ‘seat,’ here, has to mean something active – even vividly living – right? Let’s not freeze the image; because, it points to experience.)
So, what exactly are we directly knowing, such that our fixities – for instance, our constructions: I am here, something is there, and there’s a ‘between’ – dissolve? Traditionally, the Nikāya Buddha named this knowledge that we need to develop as ‘the six’: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and cognizing (which has usually been interpreted as knowing mental events). It was, for him, comprehensive:
“What is the All?” he said. “Simply, it’s: the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & smells, tongue & tastes, body & tactile sensations, intellect & mental content.”
I’ve expanded them because modern knowledge includes a lot of subtleties. In a recent post, I spoke of them as ‘the eight,’ but now I’m condensing them into seven – “seven domains of sensory life.” The names, by which I hope to encompass all that we currently designate as knowable are: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, interoception, and symbolizing.
The purpose of the lists is not merely to clarify the known for scientific progress (not in itself an unworthy purpose, of course) but in the Buddhist tradition it has always been for direct self-knowledge. So, next I’ll unpack the ancestral territory that we have available for deepening the inquiry into death, these seven domains of sense. The takeaway from the above paragraphs, though, is to be wary, during this analysis, of foreclosing our inquiry by assuming that our names, and the forms we discern, are the reality of the body. The body doesn’t actually have parts or opposites. It is an open cycle functioning, so our thinking about the body with its body-environment interaction via the linguistic gestures of ‘parts,’ ‘categories’ and other names, is meant to point to movements of an undivided process, an undivided multiplicity.
Buddhism is famous for its so-called ‘non-self’ (anatta) doctrine; ‘Emptiness’ – you read it everywhere. So, who’s ‘experiencing’ are we exploring? Who gets awakened? Let me say that this writer assumes you are a person, and that all this talk about growth, development, death, sickness, old age and awakening pertains to you as an individual. Enlightenment is a change in a person. I’ve translated the following ‘sutta’ to demonstrate that the Nikāya Buddha was clear about this.
The Burden (Samyutta Nikāya 22.22; PTS: S iii.25)
Translated by Christopher J. Ash
In Sāvatthi, the Flourishing One said: “Listen, Practitioners. I will point out the burden, the one who bears the burden, the taking up of the burden, and the laying down of the burden.” They were attentive.
“And, what, Practitioners, is the burden? It has to be said: the five sentient processes as clung-to. Which five? Form-process clung to, feeling-tone-process clung to, perception-process clung to, intentionality-process clung to, consciousness-process clung to. Just this, Practitioners, is called the burden.
“And who carries the burden? The person, it has to be said – the venerable one of such-and-such a name, and such-and-such a community. Practitioners, the person is called the carrier of the burden.
“And, what is: ‘taking up the burden’? Thirst, bringing renewed existence – accompanied by pleasure and lust; seeking pleasure all over the place. That is: thirst for sense pleasure, thirst for existence, and thirst for non-existence. This, Practitioners, is called ‘taking up the burden.’
“And, what is: ‘laying down the burden’? The complete fading away and cessation of that very thirst – giving it up, forsaking it – being free and unattached. This, Practitioners, is called ‘laying down the burden.’”
This is what the Flourishing One said. And, having spoken, the Well-Faring One further said:
“A burden, indeed, are the five sentient processes,
And, the burden-bearer is the person.
Taking up the burden in the world is stressful;
Laying the burden down is well-being.
Having laid this grave burden aside,
without having taken up any other –
Having pulled out craving at the root –
One is free from thirst, fully quenched.”
Later, I’ll have to explore how ‘the processes themselves’ could be thought of as a burden. It would seem obvious to us in a science-based culture that nature has given rise to these forms of knowing – the sensory dimensions – and to reject them cannot be sensible. So, instead we’ll look at the text as presenting something which contemplative experience can elucidate: that the senses don’t present reality.
Mindfulness with clear comprehension – that is, the way of contemplation – reveals that there is in present reality a way in which the noun phrase ‘senses’ doesn’t apply. To know this is to find a state of knowledge that is highly unusual; a valid state of absence of such a distinction, which will nevertheless not negate ordinary usage of the phrase. You would be forgiven if you responded with an “Huh?”
‘It is a state without ordinary perception and without disordered perception and without no perception and without any annihilation of perception. It is perception, consciousness, that is the source of all the basic obstacles.’
– Saddhatissa, H.. The Sutta-Nipata: A New Translation from the Pali Canon (p. 102). Taylor and Francis.
The teaching of the deathless makes sense only after we have seen that perception is not the primary fact of human experiencing; that perception is dependently arisen, and so derives from a deeper dimension.
But, for now, consider that it’s possible that there is a way in which mis-perceiving their nature is the condition for the burden. Suffering’s cause doesn’t just reside in the process of clinging alone, but in clinging as a significantly energetic point in a nexus of conditions. Why would we cling anyway, unless there was something we’ve projected into these processes? Have we seen them correctly, independently of our thirst and associated constructing tendencies?
And, for now, my point is that words like ‘a person,’ or ‘an individual,’ and so on, are a valid ways of speaking about our experiencing, referring to we who have been born and will die, and who are clarifying our place in things. ‘Non-self’ is a strategy for releasing us from clinging to experiences, releasing us into a greater comprehension; and is not meant to deny what you rightly know. We’ll come to all this later, when we unpack the Kalakārāma Sutta.
The body knows its activity at levels we call ‘unconscious’ (for example, its cellular activity). The following schema presents categories of ways the body ‘knows’ consciously – ways it is lucent (mindful) of its interacting. This conscious ‘having’ of experience helps the body carry forward its life.
Remember, however, although we say ‘six,’ they are not separated out like that in reality. This schema of the ‘senses and their bases’ presents them as separate only for our understanding; they are, in actuality, never separate, isolated processes. They always imply each other. It is our discriminating capacity which discerns them separately.
In the body-en approach, all these categories indicate the interactive activity of the body. The body is the one ‘organ’ (the one sensing organism).
Sight consciousness results from the body’s interaction (contact-activity) with its surrounds, via the eye. Seeing is an aspect of body-environment interaction (body-en).
Sound consciousness results from the body’s interaction with its surrounds, via the ear. Hearing is an aspect of body-en, body-environment interaction.
TASTING AND SMELLING
Likewise, taste and smell consciousness are also each aspects of body-en.
TOUCHING (skin contact)
We in the West have traditionally said there are ‘five senses,’ the fifth being touch. This is an over-simplification; but let’s separate out touch:
Touch consciousness results from the body’s interaction (contact-activity) with its surrounds, interacting via the skin (which, in particular, is the organ of touch, though muscle pressure plays a part, too). Touching is an aspect of body-en. (The word ‘feel’ is often used as a synonym for ‘touch.’ Via the skin, you can feel your clothes, for instance.)
Introduction to two other body senses:
In the light of modern scientific categories of experience, we will add two further body senses. These are subtle interiorly ‘felt’ ways of knowing: ‘form perception’ and ‘innermost perception.’ (See the note on this.)
PERCEIVING FORM (Loosely speaking: Proprioception)
With form-consciousness the body registers sensations arising within its own tissues; especially those concerned with the sense of position, balance and movement of the whole body, and its limbs.
Proprioceptive consciousness results from the body’s interaction (contact-activity) with its inner ‘environments,’ interacting inwardly. Proprioception is body-en. This, too, is the body feeling, the body’s sentience.
PERCEIVING ‘INNERMOST’ SENSATIONS
(For now, I’ll refer to this by the term short ‘Interoception’)
This points to sensations in the viscera and nerves. Interoception enables us to feel things such as: hunger, satisfaction, itching, tickles and tingles, pain, body temperature, nausea, need to urinate and defecate, physical effort, sexual arousal, emotions, and – very important, and little recognised – bodily-felt meaning. (Gendlin’s ‘felt sense.’)
Interoceptive consciousness results from the body’s interaction (contact-activity) with its own inner processes (its own ‘environments’); specifically, through interacting inwardly with the guts and subtle energies. Interoception is body-en. This, too, is feeling; that is, sentience.
Also, the body is aware of the mental – the Buddhist 6th channel of sensing.
This activity – that is, knowing of concepts, ideas, images, memories, and other subtle inner energies, including consciousness of consciousness – all this too is body-en. ‘Mental’ consciousness results from the body’s interaction with its surrounds, via its inward sensing. Hearing is an aspect of body-en. Mental life, too, is sensed.
EXTENDING THE USUAL MEANING OF ‘ENVIRONMENT’
How is this category – ‘mentality’ – an ‘environment’? Mind is body-environment interaction; but for this to have all its power, we have to expand our understanding of how the body has its ‘environments.’ Along with proprioception and interoception (as defined above), awareness of mental content is such a differentiated activity – which the body ‘goes on in’ (Gendlin). In this work, ‘environment’ is what you go on in.
Any organism, by virtue of reflexivity, becomes its own environment to some degree. The human body has developed a high degree of conscious differentiation of its own activities, and so its ways of ‘having’ its own activity have become differentiated as environments (situations) to be taken into account. The eight-in-interaction take shape as our states of mind, and our skill in handling them. So, I’m in a job interview, and my innermost sensing tells me I’m nervous. It that’s so, I know some things: I can sit up confidently (that feels better immediately) and I can activate the mental operations that might ease my amygdala’s presently disruptive functioning.
When we become familiar with the range of body-environment-interaction as outlined above – everything from what is ‘external to the body’ to what is ‘internal to the body,’ including the making of that distinction – then we can recognise the intricate dynamics of ‘states of mind’ and work with them skilfully.
The Buddha was teaching one day, and he said, “Practitioners, I will tell you about the ‘All.’ Listen closely.” Upon the practitioners assenting, he said: “What is the All? Simply: the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & smells, tongue & tastes, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. Anyone who would say, ‘I reject this All, I will describe something more,’ if questioned as to the grounds for his claim, would be unable to explain; and would, furthermore, be at a loss. Why? Because [whatever he posits] lies beyond [the] range [of experience].”
We’re extending this some, but it remains essentially a powerful method of self-awareness.
 In the light of modern scientific categories of experience, we can add two further body senses to our experiential schema: proprioception, and interoception. These are subtle interiorly ‘felt’ ways of knowing. However, science has not very clearly delineated the categories, yet; so, I’ll use the phrases ‘form perception’ and ‘innermost perceptions,’ provisionally, to try to offer support for these subtle discernments.
I expect that in future this last-mentioned category of consciousness will be further differentiated by science to account for subtle energies, such as chi, or kundalini, and so on; but, at this point in history, these are included in my ‘innermost’ category.
 The dictionary defines ‘mental’ as of the ‘mind’; and, by ‘mind’ most people mean: thoughts, inner images, memories, and so on. However, let’s include that the mind can be aware of its own knowing of such contents. This makes this category extremely subtle as an experiential category.
While in the populace at large the word ‘mind’ has largely become restricted to a kind of content – products of the body such as thoughts, inner images, memories, dreams, and so on – we can widen the meaning of ‘mind,’ so that it includes what some call ‘awareness of awareness.’ If that’s so, then we have a broad category called the ‘mental’ which includes the subtler ‘spiritual’ experiences (If extra-sensory modes of knowing are detected, I would include them here.)
 Some further theoretical thoughts on the ‘mental’: Firstly, it would be too big a topic to go into, here, to explain how consciousness [or awareness] can know consciousness. This has to do with living organism’s reflexivity of process. Even one-celled organism ‘know’ organise themselves reflexively.
Secondly, and relatedly, tradition – East and West – have conceived of a separate organ – called the ‘intellect’ or the ‘mind’ as an organ, or ‘the soul’ – which knows mental phenomena. Of course, it’s quite possible that the organ especially developed for this territory is the brain. Experientially, it’s not so important to adjudicate on this issue right now; because whatever way you look at it, it’s still the body interacting – albeit extremely subtly. In the activity of become optimally lucent in our living, we just need to sensitivity to experiencing.
Lastly, a further distinction could be made here between the obvious psychological content – thoughts, concepts, ideas, images, memory, gross imagination – and more psychic or subtle level of mentality; such as subtler imagination, spontaneous visions, discrimination itself, and awareness of awareness. Again, this is not the place to explore that possibility.
As soon as I wrote that piece about the consensus trance, I thought that I’d follow up with a further note. It’s been a while, so I’ll set some context: It’s usual since Freud for us to seek the cause of our discontent in deficiencies generated in our family of origin. What the consensus trance concept does is broaden this, so that we look at the way that society shapes us, to fit in with its values, and its dominant ideology (which in the West, includes tracing personality difficulties to family of origin). Since Marx, we can see a lot of our suffering also originates on the societal level – particularly with the injustice of unequal distribution of capital and other opportunities. There’s all this, and more – for I haven’t gone into the madness and violence of the inheritors of medieval religious beliefs.
However, the acquired patterns of culture are not all we have to clarify, to see nature, death, and ourselves in perspective. Beneath all this are the ‘innate’ patterns, brought along from our animal past and even from cellular life itself. We weren’t born a blank slate. We were born with our inherited predispositions, which, ironically, can obscure our relationship with nature, if they aren’t made conscious. However, many beliefs about ‘nature’ obscure this territory.
Even if we didn’t acquire dulling predispositions, through our conventional conceptual training in this lifetime, we still would have, in our mental continuum, tendencies which were established by our plant and animal forebears. To live harmoniously with each other and with the biospher, these tendencies, too, we need to uncover and transform into a new level of functioning – even if they are harder to see and change than the patterns of the consensus trance.
I don’t see that the animal level is being named very usefully; partly because it is dominated by a particular myth in science. That is, the dominant ‘trance’ in this area is enhanced, these days, by conventional evolutionist scientists. They provide us with a major thread in the current version of consensus trance. (Current? Consensus trances are not new – ask Socrates. Ask Hypatia or Galileo.)
The views propagated by conventional science, run like this: The universe is some kind of dumb ‘material’ or ‘physical’ stuff – ‘things’ in movement. They move in something which, ever since Newton at the turn of the seventeenth century, is imagined as absolute time and absolute space. (It’s ironic that Newton also believed in an absolute God, who was supposed to be somewhere out there, too.)
Apparently, in this story, time and space are somewhere running the show, and are independent of our conceiving. So, in this kind of time and space, a material universe pops up and evolves randomly, running mechanically, once certain chains of billiard-ball-like activity have been set somehow in motion. It’s a dead universe which gives rise to living organisms; which never are other than versions of material stuff, matter.
In this model, intelligence enters the picture with humans, or at least with primates. We are ‘homo sapiens,’ ‘wise man.’ (Yes – ‘Man.’ A nomenclature which we haven’t yet corrected, but surely it wouldn’t be a difficult move?)
No-one has shown convincingly how it is that a non-living material universe gave rise to sapience, to a creature with intelligence. Neither has this stuff (that is, ‘matter’) ever been discovered. However, this belief is comforting (for scientists) because it apparently makes nature predictable (for scientists); that is, it gives them a deterministic universe – if we can only work out the ‘laws’ of the material stuff.
One harmful consequence of this belief in ultimate ‘matter’ is that natural processes – such as the body – are treated as machine-like. The metaphor of the machine is propagated in conventional science training at all levels. There are scientists now spending millions and millions of dollars on projects aimed at storing the information in human brains (as much of it as they can get), so that machines can have it. Some of them hypothesise that there wouldn’t be any real difference between such a machine (a robot) and a human.
(This is not too different from what I was told by many an adult, when I was in my late questing teens, during the Vietnam War: You can’t stop war, because humans have always been this way, and will be this way forever. Determinism.)
So, this modern ‘materialism’ is all part of the consensus trance, too. My point, though, in this ‘footnote,’ is that all these beliefs are acquired on top of one’s natural state at birth; one’s nature – which is not perfected, or perhaps not even perfectable; but, which, one experientially accessed, can be worked with. However, by and large, these patterns remain unexamined and foundational for one’s sense of presence, because the consensus trance is not dealt with.
And, if we don’t know who we are, as life-process – if we simply go along in the trance – how do we know what death is? When no longer entranced, we might be able to understand what poet W.B. Yeats meant when he wrote: “Man has created death.”
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
– Attributed to J. Krishnamurti
The search for authenticity is an ennobling quest. The early Buddhist teachings value highly the ‘true person.’ Yet, we are born ignorant of what is going on here, and are introduced to ‘what is going on here’ by people who haven’t clarified the matter themselves. Truth isn’t loved in societies generally.
‘Consensus trance’ is a term I got from consciousness researcher Charles Tart. When I became acquainted with his work, Tart wasn’t centrally interested in death. He was more interested in what unusual states of mind could tell us about human possibilities.
Later he wrote about near-death experiences and was interested in what happens to consciousness after death. What happens after death is not a core interest in my project (though later, I’ll enquire into the usefulness of the rebirth concept).
However, his idea of the susceptibility of children to hypnotic suggestion, grabbed my attention. It offers modern support for how consciousness gets so dissociated from nature generally and from its own nature.
In Tart’s book Waking Up: The Obstacles to Human Potential, he made a credible case for concluding that children are inducted by their parents – the unwitting agents of their culture – into a ‘consensus trance’ which reflects the states of consciousness approved in their society.
Tart compared the suggestibility of children to the criteria for hypnosis suggestibility in psychology labs. Moreover, he suggests that parents can do things that no university laboratory would be allowed to do, by ethical standards: they can withdraw love, for instance, when the ‘subject’ is not co-operating; or worse, they can use physical violence to reinforce their lessons. His case was backed up by his years as a researcher at Stanford University.
In case you are interested in reading a stark description of the trance induction – of how our parents bring us into the consensus trance – then I recommend you read Charles Tart; chapter 10 of Waking Up: The Obstacles to Human Potential. It’s chilling.
At the end of the chapter, he writes:
“But,” you might well say, “I don’t feel like I’m in a trance!” Of course not. We think of trance as something unusual, and our ordinary state as usual. We only realise we are in a trance state by reasoning about it… and/or by experiencing what it is like to be out of trance, to be awake.”
And that is the purpose of mindfulness practice. ‘Experiencing what it is like to be out of trance, to be awake.’ A person waking up “dwells contemplating the body in the body… feeling-tones in feeling-tones… psyche in psyche… and the dynamics of phenomena in the dynamics of phenomena – ardent, comprehending clearly, present, having removed hankering and distaste with regard to the world.” (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta). This means becoming independent of socity’s values.
There is a way forward. Once mindfulness is engaged there’s nothing – even trance – that isn’t a doorway to the real life, if we just turn our head a little in the right direction, or maybe start to just look out of the corner of our eye, at how we are really.
A place to start is just to entertain the possibility that being alive could be felt more authentically than it presently is; though, we might have to whisper it, because it’s still not common, being an authentic human.
A Story That Could Be True
by William Stafford
If you were exchanged in the cradle and
your real mother died
without ever telling the story
then no one knows your name,
and somewhere in the world
your father is lost and needs you
but you are far away.
He can never find
how true you are, how ready.
When the great wind comes
and the robberies of the rain
you stand on the corner shivering.
The people who go by –
you wonder at their calm.
They miss the whisper that runs
any day in your mind,
“Who are you really, wanderer?”–
and the answer you have to give
no matter how dark and cold
the world around you is:
“Maybe I’m a king.”
So, in respect of the many situations where the word ‘death’ is used, are we attuning to our bodies’ responses; and do we know how to venture into the unknown freshly?
It is the “sphere of experience that should be known” (said the Nikāya Buddha in the Kāmaguṇa-sutta, SN 35.117)
I’m reminded that so early in our project so many of the words that I’m using can’t yet mean to you what I want them to mean. We will have to work with them, until they bear new meanings, until they mean freshly.
I’ve think I’ve made it clear that this is so with the word ‘death,’ but what of other words which I’ve used – words like: ‘body,’ ‘insight,’ and ‘inside’ – especially the way that I’ve used ‘inside’? I wrote: “Can we have a taste of the view of death from the inside?” What kind of ‘inside’ can this be? Even in this last decade of my fifty-year Buddhist inquiry, my experience of ‘inside’ has changed and deepened radically.
How do we find fresh life for the old words, words we meet everyday? Words don’t only accumulate meanings to become a fixed stock. They can be renewed – extended – by our whole-bodied, present use of them. A word’s use can feed back into its accumulated meanings, carrying concepts forward freshly, in line with our living – if we let it.
We do this in the same manner that we did as children: by resonating words against our feel of the situations. Words point to our being-in-situations – they find their meaning in bodily interactions.
How conscious are we, then, of the power of our speaking and thinking? When someone uses a significant word, I want to know to what experience the speaker is pointing, before assuming that I understand their meaning. Our conversations need to demonstrate in what way the words are meant. We have taken too much for granted.
For instance, I’m not one to use the ‘God’ word. But, if I’m talking to a thoughtful Christian, once we’ve got clear what kind of experience the word is pointing to for them, then I can use it with them. We might not always meet in the concepts, but we can meet in the experiences which they are meant to carry forward.
So, when talking about death, I try to show how I uncover, or invite, the experiences that I am naming. Recently I was talking with several people who were using ‘death’ in two main ways, but they hadn’t distinguished what these two ways were doing differently for them. It helped the conversation for us to get that distinction clear. I pointed out that the two meanings which they seem to be confusing were:
1) death as the ‘over-there/out-there’ experience; dependent mostly on knowing the physical death of others; death of an object; and,
2) death as experienced; death intimately.
The group could then begin to explore the idea of dying ‘before you die,’ once they had the insight that they were mixing up or collapsing two meanings under one label. Now they could feel each reference to death differently.
Through your bodily feel, you too can do the experiments and verify the meaning of the words for yourself. Here, in this project, I’m trying to show, as I go, how I use language, to free us from concepts. Let concepts serve us, not we serve them.
On your side, can you do reality-reading? As you read you remain aware of your body’s posture, its breath, its sensory presentations, its feelings, its felt meanings, and its thoughts – all in continuous flow? Can we not get lost in the words but refer them back to the ‘one who knows’ – our bodily interactional intelligence?
So, what is the job that words do for us? I have been convinced by forty years of inquiry into the relationship of language to experiencing, that the primary purpose of thinking and saying is to carry forward the situations in relation to which we are thinking and saying.
Free of craving and grasping,
Skilled in language and its use —
Knowing the coming together of sound,
[With] what’s passed and what’s next —
One is said to be
“A great person, of great wisdom,
In one’s ultimate body.”
– Dhammapada, verse 352. Translated by Christopher J. Ash
When we see the arising and fading of each experience – and more dramatically, see that there is nothing to get hold of as arising or fading – we see clearly that there is nothing to get hold of as ‘I’ or ‘mine.’ It’s clear, then, how stressful it is to pursue fictions about ourselves, others, and life.
Lately, for me, when confronting one drama or another in daily life, or one trivial pursuit, the question comes, ‘Is this how I want to spend this precious life?’ It’s no more than the snap of a finder, and I want to spend it arguing? Or, chasing ‘things’? I don’t think so. No thanks.
Bhikkhu Analayo in his latest book, ‘A Meditator’s Life of the Buddha,’ begins with the suggestion that we could consider, “how should we best formulate our own “noble quest”?