Insight

THE SIX BECOMES EIGHT

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).

SEEING

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).

HEARING

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.[1] 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.

MENTALITY

Also, the body is aware of the mental – the Buddhist 6th channel of sensing.[2]

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.[3]

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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.)

[3] 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.

Consensus Trance

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.”

*

Invitation to Establish a Citadel

Having understood this body to be [vulnerable] like a clay pot,
Having settled into this heart as if it were a citadel,
attack the King of Death with the sword of wisdom,
and protect what has been conquered by clinging to nothing.
Dhammapada, verse 40.

Wisdom in our sorrowing world is urgently needed. How come we aren’t talking to each other about what it might be, and how it might be nurtured species-wide? Let’s entertain the possibility that wisdom is far more accessible than previous cultures have led us to believe. What if we discovered in this inquiry that every human body is wisdom?

Wisdom regarding death and dying can transform humanity’s unexplored anguish, which discharges itself in destructive emotions. The tensions wrought by unresolved core questions – those that every child encounters, and puts out of sight – make their way into our behaviour.

How come we aren’t asking, while we still have enough ‘nous’ to nurture the inquiry: “What kind of experience does the word ‘death’ point to? Can we have a taste of the view of death from the inside? What’s death going to be like, anyhow?” Mary Oliver asks this, in her poem When Death Comes: “(W)hat is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?”

Most adults have seen what it’s like from the ‘outside.’ A verse from the early Buddhist teachings puts it this way:
All too soon will this body will lie in the funeral home:
useless, without mind, like a meaningless stick of wood.
– Dhammapada, verse 41.

We see this fact, with the bodily eye; but the heart’s eye – longing for depth, not surfaces – intuits the possibility of insight into death, and the ending of anguish. Zen teacher Aitken Roshi used to speak of ‘dukkha’ (a name for the most fundamental human suffering) as ‘anguish.’

This Dhammapada ‘stick of wood’ verse, by the way, is even more stark in its literal rendering: “This body will lie on the ground,” it says. In the Buddha’s time, the body might simply be taken to a charnel yard, and be left to rot and disintegrate out in the open. ‘Discarded,’ the original verse says. I changed the context to reflect a common process in Western countries – funeral homes and crematoriums – but, to be matter-of-fact about it: at some stage, our bodies, too, are discarded – understandably.

It’s interesting, also, to reflect that ‘charnel’ means ‘flesh’ (carnal). Charnel grounds and houses are (or were) about the meaty side of death. There certainly is this side of things – the surface layers of human life. It would appear that there are few ‘flesh grounds’ these days; but, even so: this body is still (in some respects, at least) “like a clay pot.” It’s fragile. It’s breakable. It’s vulnerable to all kinds of misadventure. That is not fresh news, of course; but, how little – oh, how little in our entertainment-obsessed world – have we penetrated to the true significance of this, all the way to the heart of birth and death!?

So, how come we aren’t wondering more openly, together, “Who or what in us dies?” (Who Dies? by the way, is a title of another of Stephen Levine’s books.) We can’t lose, by this inquiry.
Who has done her own work –
Being endowed with virtue and insight,
firm in the Dhamma and a speaker of truth –
people hold such a one dear.
– Dhammapada, verse 217.

Well… that is: can’t lose anything but our fictions; which I acknowledge we mightily cling to, as to a damn good novel plot. However, do allow, please, the possibility of not clinging, realizing your true nature, and “settling into this heart as it were a citadel.” Entertain the possibility of being thereby being better equipped for the meaty dénouement on the final page. If you have experienced the citadel aspect of awareness, you’ll know that it is rock-solid – wondrously, beautifully immovable. And, it’s unconditional. It is beyond corruption.

Insight into death can not only penetrate to the heart of birth and death, but can establish the citadel, and secure the heart’s gains, because:
For one whose heart is without affliction and perplexity,
who has abandoned good and bad, who is awake, there is no fear.
– Dhammapada, verse 39.

I’m working in this project at unpacking – in contemporary terms – a remarkable possibility present in all of us: that when we meet the essence of death we find a jewel – one aspect of which is the citadel.

(All translations from the Dhammapada are translated from Pāli by Christopher J. Ash, unless otherwise attributed.)

A Worthy Insight Training

“Insight (εἴδησις, seeing, understanding) we take as a fine and worth-while thing..”
– From the opening passages of Aristotle’s ‘De Anima,’ quoted in Gendlin, Line by Line Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, Bk 1.

Because my topic is how we think about death and dying, and how we can best benefit from these facts of life, this work has insight as its primary topic. My OED gives, as a definition for ‘insight’: “The fact of penetrating with the eyes of the understanding into the inner character or hidden nature of things; a glimpse or view beneath the surface.” I want to look into the not-so-obvious dimensions of death and dying. Insight, from a Buddhist perspective, is about care, growth, and precision of understanding; hence, it is about more life, and that can occur even while one is dying.

A further major theme in this work is the exploration of the kind of thinking which fosters insight into death and dying; and, not only the how of that particular thinking, but the how of any thinking freshly. It sounds funny to say, because we adults think we know how to think. Yet, we are get along in our day-to-day thinking by relying on a mode of thinking acquired before the age of… say, mid-teens? Early, anyhow.

Death did figure in our thinking early in life, but we hardly got on top of the topic, did we? If so, why is there not peace abounding? We didn’t master a training in death-thinking, nor in thinking in general. In respect of death, we fell in line with our cultures, and adopted a ‘don’t-think-the-unsayable’ strategy.

A student recently came to see me shocked that her life-long friend died accidentally, unexpectedly, in the midst the friend’s routine daily activities. When this happens, the mourners find themselves without ground. They’ve mastered much else – engineering, medicine, building, creative arts, therapy, driving, or whatever – but they haven’t mastered the process of insight, which alone can light up the ‘space’ where death matters the most. People die in innumerable ways, frequently unexpectedly – and we are shocked. Why the shock? You might say it’s normal to be shocked. Is it? What do you mean by ‘normal’? And, if it is, maybe ‘normal’ is not optimally responsive to life’s powerful moments. Can we learn from death, when we are in shock?

I heard of a five-year-old who cried in anguish – “I don’t want to die.” That little one had seen it; he had commended that he will in fact die. From the point of view of the growth of insight, and of wisdom, that’s a precious moment. How do we carers respond, when that occurs?

There’s a YouTube of another five-year-old, inconsolable because she realizes that her precious, little, baby brother is going to change; to grow up. “I don’t want him to grow up,” she wails, keening before the event. She wants him to remain a baby, “because he is so cute.” She’s seen the fact that no matter how much she loves him – he won’t stay the way he is. She seems to Intuit that none of us will be here forever, because next she bawls: “And I don’t want to die when I’m a hundred!”

I was uncomfortable that someone – presumably a parent – was making a video of her so interior moment, but seeing the video did get me thinking about other times, of other cases, when I have heard of children having this particular anguish. I think that most of us (if not all) have a child somewhat like that in us, a child who once said, or thought: “I don’t want to die.”

Tragically, if asked, the adults around us didn’t know what to say, except for the usual conventional, distracting platitudes. Things like: “Don’t worry about it. Don’t think about it – you’ll go to heaven and meet Toby” (or whatever our pet’s name was – or the grandparent’s name). You know the kind of thing. At best, the carers whom I’m talking about – the parents and teachers of curious or bewildered children – are thrown into a sea of loving pain, upon witnessing the anguish of these innocents; but they still can’t respond in a grounded way. Apart from platitudes, they might treat the child as cute (as in the YouTube video); or they might be embarrassed at their lack of capacity to meet their child’s existential angst.

Of course, I’m generalising, but think back to your education. Most adults in our society lack insight into death. Insight training didn’t happen in their childhood, either. So, how can they help their children, when they weren’t trained to investigate the subtle dimensions of life? For, death, despite appearances is a subtle matter. It’s as subtle as ‘mind.’ WeWe aren’t trained to investigate our minds – as rigorously as a good scientist would – to investigate that which is less obvious than chemicals, organs, and nervous systems; that which is closer to us than breathe – our actual, interactional being-in-and-of-now.

Before the age of twenty-six, not one person that I meet in flesh and blood suggested to me that it was legitimate to question what the ‘mind’ is. Not one. And I’d gone through university by then. No educator had helped me get a practical handle for the territory of ‘mind,’ until I meet the Buddhist teacher Lama Thubten Yeshe, in 1976. Yet, can we comprehend death without penetrating the hidden mind of freedom? Where are we teaching this in our schools?

As a result, we are left to depend on, and we daily serve, the standard body of our culture’s thought. Presently, in the standard training, we are expected to believe that we are fundamentally made up of non-living things – sub-atomic particles, elements, molecules, and so on; and, that at death, we simply re-become non-living entities – food for worms, or dust – and that’s it. The rest of the standard story is that between birth and (that kind of) death, we simply muddle through, heroically making up whatever story we can about what this life is, and who we are in it – any story that will work. Since post-modernism, all stories are equally true. This is the dominant model, isn’t it?

While useful in the operating theatre (where, of course, I want my surgeon to have this view in great detail), such a version of human bodies doesn’t include the experience from the inside, and so it doesn’t include what is most important to you – your experiencing. And, isn’t it experiencing death and dying that we are afraid of? So, another central theme of my project is experiencing.

Isn’t it true that, in our English-speaking scientifically literate culture, we don’t teach our children to respect the great matter at the heart of their discovery of death; this discovery which, powerfully for them, includes the striking realization that death separates us from what is dear to us? More importantly, we don’t encourage our children to cherish the questions; a more important response than giving them answers.

To the extent that this lack of training was so for you and I, we got on with growing up ‘normal,’ and we learned to tuck the inconsolable doubts away for as long as possible, in a compartment the therapists call ‘the unconscious,’ far from the reach of insight. Does this seem a healthy and happy course? Perhaps instead we can turn toward death and dying, and find gifts in a fresh approach? Perhaps this is the next step in our development in the way to becoming truly homo sapiens – the wise human.

 

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