Meditation began moving westward from Asia in a serious way in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An early example that has persisted to this day is the Kriya Yoga of the now deceased ParamahansaYoganada. Kriya Yoga is rooted in the Vedanta teachings of India and specifically the yoga sutras of the sage Pantanjali that were written around 400 CE. More recently Siddha Yoga (a.k.a. Tantric Yoga) was introduced in the west by the late Swami Muktananda. Tantric Yoga has its roots in the Tantra teachings of India. As early as the 1970s, the eastern process of meditation was being westernized. The Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson transformed eastern meditation into The Relaxation Response about which he said, “We claim no innovation but simply a scientific validation of age-old wisdom.”
Eastern meditation was thus on the slippery slope that led from a phenomenological way of directly experiencing alignment with the source of all being to a medicalized, objectively validated way of managing stress and anxiety. Today it can be found under “scientific” scrutiny in universities and employed as an intervention procedure by clinicians. Western science has turned a spiritual practice into a scientifically validated health procedure and redirected its age-old wisdom from transcendence to stress management. For those who prefer dancing with shadows, I will leave you here with the sanitized version made “safe” for western peoples.
What I will now do, in a generic way, is introduce you to how I see the true purpose of eastern meditation. To begin with, let’s examine the worldview that lies at the root of meditation. In the origination stories of eastern traditions we find an explanation for the world that runs more or less along the following line. The material universe is a manifestation of a source state from which everything arises. This is often described as a primal vibration, frequency or sound. Interestingly, this has a parallel in western science by way of string theory in physics, which posits that everything in the material universe arises from vibrating stings of energy.
The source sound is often represented by the Sanskrit symbol for the sound “Om.” While everything that manifests has its own unique sound or frequency expression, at its core or root is the primal vibration of “Om.” The source state has many descriptions and names, which can include: The Ground of All Being, All That Is, The Consciousness, Nothingness, Emptiness, Universal Mind, God, and so on. Let’s just call it Source.
Mystics throughout the ages, including some western mystics, have taught that a direct knowing of Source is available to each and every human being. To know Source one should look for it within. First one should “tune in” to one’s own unique vibratory pattern and then follow that inward to its core expression, which will be the primordial vibration of Source. In short, the way to Know Source is to come into harmonic resonance with the Source frequency, which is within yourself. Mystics often describe resonance with Source as a merging with the absolute and a feeling of unconditional love. The only other way to Know Source is to experience it indirectly through experience of the personal expression of Source by one who is in harmonic resonance with it.
Looking at meditation from this perspective suggests that the purpose of meditation is to turn within and silently listen for one’s unique connection to Source. If one has “ears to hear,” then one will begin to move into harmonic resonance with one’s underlying vibratory nature. The greater the state of resonance the purer the reflected expression of Source.
Mystics describe several states that can be thought of as changing levels of resonance. To illustrate these states two charts adapted from two different perspectives are provided. Assuming that one begins in the ego state (fictive-self) where one is identified with the body/mind, then the state prior to Self-realization is what I have called the natural mind and others have described simply as I AM. One is on the cusp and in a state of consciousness in which the dominant mode of being is presence, a state in which one has recovered the state of resonance with the natural self into which one was born. Such a shift moves one away from always using the enculturated top-down perception learned during development to the ability to employ the bottom-up perception of a young child whenever desired. In other words, you can see the world clearly as it is and unencumbered by beliefs, stories and conceptual schemes.
While meditation can be made into a complex subject, it is simplicity itself. It is not a doing but a being. It is not had by mastery but by surrender. Transformation, when it comes, takes one. It is not an achievement. Or, in the words of Michael Valentine Smith, “With waiting comes fullness.”
The essence of meditation, inclusive of its many variations, can be thought of as a doorway into Presence. Or, as I sometimes say, “meditation is Presence on training wheels.” It is not surprising then to find that there are teachers who de-emphasize formal meditation and advocate for immersion in Presence. In other words, life becomes your meditation. Meditation isn’t something you add to your life and engage in daily at 7 am. It is not another of your activities. It is not a search for something that isn’t here. It is your way of being in the world.
When life becomes your meditation, you become a state of present awareness, observing your life unfold in the moment. You monitor to learn when your awareness is no longer focused on the moment, that is, when you have left a state of Presence. Where can you go, you might ask? One teacher, Richard Moss, answers this question through the Mandala of Being. A mandala is often described as a circle. Think of yourself as standing inside of and in the center of a circle. When you are fully focused and centered in the circle, you are Present. You are fully aware of what is right here, right now. If your focus shifts to the rear, you are focused on the past. You are engaged in memory. If your focus shifts to the front, you are focused on the future. You are engaged in imagination. If your focus shifts to the left, you are focused on your personal story. You are engaged with your identity-self or fictive-self, that is, who you think you are. If your focus shifts to the right, your are focused on narratives about the external world. You are engaged in your beliefs, opinions and concepts, that is, explanations you’ve created or adopted about the nature of things in your world.
The teacher, Leonard Jacobson, points out in his book Journey into Now that, at root, there is only one place you can escape to from presence and that is into the mind. Memory, imagination, identity stories, beliefs, opinions and concepts are all products of the mind. He suggests that most of us, most of the time, are lost in the mind. We become deeply immersed in our memories, imagination, stories and beliefs. We are too self-absorbed to be truly conscious of our life as it unfolds in the moment. Jacobson doesn’t teach abandoning the mind but rather learning to recognize it for what it is — a tool. We use it when it is appropriate and then set it aside. Do you need to plan a trip? The mind is a great tool. Do you need to find an error in a computation? The mind is a great tool. However, we actually need this tool far less frequently than we think. We are susceptible to overusing the mind because we’ve become addicted to thinking and conflate ourselves with our thoughts.
You are not your thoughts. You are pristine awareness or as Ram Dass says, “loving awareness.” One benefit of being fully aware in the present moment is that you become an observer of thoughts arising and subsiding in your awareness. You neither cause them to arise or subside. Typically, you can and usually do focus your attention on them and begin unpacking them, which is analogous to chasing after a butterfly through a tangled forest. You usually spend endless hours lost in pursuit of elusive “butterflies” and become lost in the forest of the mind.
Jacobson simply asks that we learn to be aware of when we are lost in the mind and bring ourselves gently back to the present without self-judgment or self-criticism. For those of us strongly addicted to thinking, it may be necessary to find some way to cue ourselves periodically to monitor our thought. To reconnect with Presence, Jacobson suggests that we find something in the moment to be Present with to help us focus in the now. It doesn’t matter what it is. It can be a tree, a pet, a child, a spouse, a friend, the feel of bread dough being kneaded, the smell of onions being grilled, the sound of a piano playing, the feel of our body resting against a chair, the unfolding of the road before us as we drive, the feel of our breath moving in and out of our body and so on. Jacobson does not object to using meditation as long as it is focused on Presence.
The program that Jacobson offers is first to return to Presence any time you become aware that you have left it, other than to accomplish a task. This is continued until being Present becomes habitual. The second aspect of his program is to become aware or conscious, if you prefer, of the things that, unnecessarily, pull you out of Presence. Of these things, he asks that they be examined for commonalities so that patterns of “seductive” thoughts or escapes from Presence can be identified, examined, understood and released. One handy clue about when you’re being seduced by your mind is when you find your thoughts cluttered with personal pronouns. The second activity is an important part of becoming anchored in the Present. Once you are at home in Presence, Jacobson says that the deepening process begins. The deeper into Presence you settle, the greater your resonance with Source. At the deepest levels of Presence one’s harmonic resonance with Source may bring you into unity with All That Is.
If you find it useful to begin with a program of meditation, there is no reason not to do this. You should go into a meditation program with the recognition that it isn’t an end in itself. Once you’ve acclimated yourself to being Present for short periods of time during meditation, you should consider weaning yourself off of a formal meditation process. If you need a transition between meditation and being present in your daily life, I would suggest that you use a Buddhist meditation called rigpa, for which there is an example at the end of The Looking Glass. From a foundation in rigpa you can begin the transition to being Present as frequently as possible in the course of your daily life. This is where the real action is and the sooner you can get there the better.
In conclusion, I should mention that in some traditions that employ meditation there is another goal that should be briefly discussed. This goal is to become so intensely focused on or Present with an object of consciousness that one fully merges with it. This can be either an “objective object” or a “subjective object.” By objective I mean an object in the consensus environment that most everyone is aware of or could be aware of, whereas a “subjective object” is phenomenological, private or personal. The meditator becomes one with the object. Development of this level of Presence leads not only to becoming one with the object but the realization that there is only one object — consciousness itself. The meditator ultimately becomes one with All That Is.
In western philosophy, this is similar to what Immanuel Kant meant by “knowing a thing in its self,” which he thought was not possible, and therefore, our ability to know anything was always “second hand,” so to speak. If you cannot know a thing in its self, you can only know it indirectly or by inference. To offer an analogy, suppose you were one of those rare people who have no ability to feel sensations elicited by objects. Thus, you would not, for example, be able to feel heat coming from an object and would be susceptible to having your fingers burned, though you would not feel it. In other words, you would not have any sensory awareness of heat. You could infer it by the effect that it has on your fingers, or you could infer its presence from the reading on a thermometer.
Kant argued that we are forever like the person described above relative to the world and universe at large. We can know nothing about a thing in its self. Our knowledge is always limited to what we can gain indirectly through our senses and by inference from data gathered through instruments that extend our senses. Some of the yoga traditions of India would say that this is a mistaken conclusion on Kant’s part and that it is in fact possible to know a thing in its self under the proper circumstances. The knowledge thus gained, however, is phenomenological and not public in the same sense as scientific knowledge. If you are intrigued by this notion, I recommend that you read this free e-book, What is Science?
The fundamental assumption (a.k.a. ontological primitive) underlying the following comments is that of panentheism or monistic idealism. This assumption is that ALL That Is, is comprised of objects in Primordial Awareness. Consider Primordial Awareness to be an undifferentiated or unity state of potential Consciousness that is assumed to be omnipresent and have infinite intelligence, creativity and attentive capacity. Primordial Awareness, exercising its infinite intelligence and creativity, imagined a continuous process of Creation incorporating the principle of Evolution. This is not to be confused with Darwinian evolution, which is a superficial imitation of Primordial Evolution. The process of Creation then began generating objects of Consciousness in Primordial Awareness. When focus of Attention is active, then “objects” residing in Primordial Awareness are Perceived and become objects or evolving objects of Consciousness. In short, for Primordial Awareness to be Conscious of something means the “thing” becomes particularized within Primordial Awareness through focus of Attention, and thereby, there is Perception of it as individuated or separate from other “things.” Attention in Primordial Awareness is unlimited, and therefore, the objects of Consciousness are unlimited. Thus, Universal Mind comes into existence through activity in the field of Primordial Awareness. By way of analogy, one might think of Universal Mind as a movie playing out on a screen (Primordial Awareness). Some people might even say this is a description of the Mind of God. Call it what you will.
All That Is, is the content of Universal Mind and thus everything that exists is an object in Consciousness. Every object of Consciousness is an individuated subset of Primordial Awareness brought into Consciousness by the Attention given it. If you are made in the image of God, then that identity is due to you being an object of Consciousness in Primordial Awareness. An aspect of Primordial Awareness with biological potential can exist in a formless state within Consciousness or it can be expressed in a form. What you experience as a body is a biological form. The non-biological world that you experience is comprised of forms of varying densities (a.k.a. physical matter). Some physical matter will be denser than and some less dense than biological forms. All forms are objects of Consciousness and exist only in Universal Mind. All biological forms, as aspects of Universal Mind, have some degree of consciousness.
Since ALL That Is arises within Primordial Awareness and from its infinite intelligence and creativity, everything in Universal Mind is accepted unconditionally by Primordial Awareness. This unconditional acceptance, when experienced by a human form within Universal Mind, is experienced as Divine Love. Divine Love is always a fundamental characteristic of Universal Mind and therefore always applies to every object of Consciousness whether that object is aware of it or not. Unconditional acceptance or Divine Love cannot be judgmental, therefore, there is no “moral” hierarchy within Universal Mind — no good or evil, right or wrong, or other dualities necessary for experience.
Human forms can be thought of as attractors. A human form is too circumscribed to be the recipient of the infinite possibilities that exist within Universal Mind. Thus, each human form is like a receiver tuned to a limited set of content. In a human form, the receiver is defined by the initial conditions manifest in the biological form. Think of these initial conditions as genetic predispositions, epigenetic modifications, glandular configurations, neurological organizations, birth circumstances, etc. The initial conditions define and set certain limitations on the human form, which in turn determines what sort of content (thoughts, ideas, images, feelings, emotions, sensations, perceptions, impulses, etc.) that a human form initially attracts to itself from Universal Mind. These initial conditions in a human form are what I would equate with karma, which can be perceived as having both positive and negative aspects. Most elements comprising the initial conditions are prompts related to still unfolding development that would benefit from attention. A few elements comprising the initial conditions may be related to specific choices intended to provide entirely new conditions and an opportunity to learn from experiences related to those conditions. As long as you are identified with the body/mind, karma sets the agenda for your life. While the ‘blueprint” provided by karma can be and usually is followed, it can also be transcended.
Transcending karma requires a shift in identity. Almost everyone identifies with the body/mind, but the body/mind is only a vehicle, a means of providing Primordial Awareness access to an experiential dimension of its own creation. Your awareness is an aspect of Primordial Awareness. Interaction with the material dimension strongly focuses your awareness in the body/mind. Think of yourself as analogous to awareness and of an automobile as analogous to the body/mind. You use, appreciate and maintain the automobile but you do not identify with it; i.e., you do not confuse the automobile for yourself. Likewise, do not confuse your essential essence (awareness) with the vehicle (body/mind) that it employs. Identify “self” with awareness rather than with the body/mind and you may come to know the True Self and transcend your karma. Now, let’s return to ego.
Early in development, a human form perceives stimuli in its environment as neutral. This is what is known as bottom-up perception. Experience with environmental stimuli attracts content. There is a predisposition to react to that content according to initial conditions. A human form will then retain in memory some of the content, explore it, elaborate it and begin creating character traits or fundamental action patterns around it. Many of these patterns, along with core patterns (e.g., the survival pattern) that are preset, come to automatically produce interpretations, motivations, decisions and impulses to action. The more automatic they become the less awareness one has of their operation. These patterns, which I discuss as automatic programs (APs) a sub-section in Part I of the link, are eventually woven into a basic self-narrative. Part of the purpose of the self-narrative is to explain why one is thinking, feeling and doing things that are being driven by APs that operate outside of awareness.
With the emergence of the basic narrative, ego has begun forming and the process of top-down perception begins. Thus, the evolving ego structure becomes a framework for interpreting experience through the narrative-defining ego. Ego structure becomes a filter that both interprets experience and selects content attracted from Universal Mind. The ego structure is further elaborated by beliefs encountered in the environment that resonate with ego’s narrative. Especially important are cultural beliefs that are incorporated into the narrative supporting the ego process. The evolving structure is reinforced and strengthened by the resonant content recalled from memory or attracted from the Universal Mind. There is a neurological process called the default mode network (click here and here) that is closely tied to the maintenance and strengthening of ego. Anytime you are in a state of relaxed attention, it begins presenting you with material either drawn from memory or newly attracted from the Universal Mind. Attending to and engaging this material helps to refresh and elaborate the ego narrative.
As I pointed out in The Natural Mind, many spiritual traditions teach that one significant task, on the spiritual journey, is to regain the ability to return to using bottom-up perception. Both meditation and awareness in the moment (a.k.a. presence) practices are used to help meet this goal. In both cases, the objective is to quiet the mind, which means dampening the effect of the default mode network. Because content naturally arises from memory and is regularly attracted from Universal Mind, it is difficult, probably impossible, to stop this process entirely. However, it is sufficient to learn to not focus attention on this content in awareness and thereby avoid making the content objects of consciousness and thus become entangled in them.
Meditation helps you learn to maintain an attentive focus on a single stimulus such as the breath. While holding such a singular focus, it becomes possible to simply observe the flow of content in awareness as background rather than bringing it to the foreground and responding to it. Learning to simply observe content as a flow in the background will significantly reduce the amount of content arising in your awareness. In awareness practice, one focuses on a diffuse state of awareness where the field of awareness is usually external and may be full of content or potential objects of consciousness. However, none of the potential objects become true objects of consciousness. This is because nothing is singled out and established as a particular focus of attention. The focus of attention is on the field of awareness as a whole or a gestalt field and not on anything in particular within it. When awareness is holistic and no objects of consciousness are given focus, top-down perception is suspended.
Meditation and awareness practices are means of coming into a proper relationship with the ego process, which is a powerful process but still merely psychological. In the absence of disciplined attention, the ego process is unrestrained and dominant. Personal awareness identifies with the ego narrative, which is believed to arise from the body/mind. All experience is filtered through this narrative (top-down perception). Thus, top-down perception literally creates the reality that is experienced. A dominant ego interprets every thought, image or feeling that arises in awareness as being its thought, image or feeling and worthy of attention and thus as an object of consciousness.
A dominant ego process is the master of your life. Some narratives are largely functional, others largely dysfunctional and most somewhere in between. As one brings the ego process under control, making it a servant rather than a master, it is important that dysfunctional elements (entire sub-section of Part I in the link above) be addressed. If it is to become a useful tool (a servant), it needs to be a tool that is in good working order. Becoming a self-aware being that employs the ego narrative as a tool for negotiating the world, one uses top-down perception selectively. One becomes largely disentangled from individual and cultural narratives and thus in the world but not of the world. This does not mean disengaged from the world but rather being better at determining what to engage and what not to engage, knowing how to engage dispassionately and impeccably and accepting whatever the outcomes of engagement are with equanimity.
By way of analogy, imagine what it would be like to be an actor on stage with other actors, who are in a hypnotic trance, and thereby be the only one who is aware that a play is in progress and that everyone is merely preforming their part in the play. As is said in some spiritual circles, you would be the only one awake and the only one who actually understood what was going on. You could watch the play unfold, guided by its script, and understand that the actors are performing their parts while believing that they are engaged in reality. You, however, would have a choice whether or not to stay “in character” and perform as the other actors expect you to perform or deviate from the narrative (a.k.a. the script) controlling those expectations.
As an awake person or one grounded in the natural mind, there exists the possibility for unity with the unconditional acceptance or Divine Love that is the essence of Primordial Awareness. As discussed in a short essay, unification is not a causal event. That is, it is a response-independent event. Unity may happen and it may not. It is independent of anything you can do from within the “play.” However, being grounded in the natural mind is good preparation in the event of grace.
This essay begins with two assumptions; if you are uncomfortable with either one, this essay may be a challenge for you. The first assumption is that Awareness/Consciousness1 is the Source of All-That-Is. In this essay, idealism is the preferred perspective over materialism. I will begin with an excerpt adapted from another piece I wrote (see Chapter IX, p. 109) where this preference is addressed.
1. When capital letters are used to begin a word such as in “Consciousness,” the reference is to a primary state as opposed to a derived state (lower case) such as when the word “consciousness” is used. In other words, Consciousness is a universal state and consciousness is a personal or individuated state derived from Consciousness.
There are two dichotomous views on the ultimate nature of reality. One can be called the Primacy of Matter (a.k.a. materialism) and the other the Primacy of Consciousness (a.k.a. idealism). Classical physics and everyday experience support the former, and some interpretations of quantum physics and the experience of various mystics support the latter. The two views have significantly different implications. For example, materialists explain consciousness as an epiphenomenon (derivative) of matter, while idealists explain matter as an epiphenomenon of Consciousness. There is considerable contention around which view is correct. The likelihood is that neither conception will ever be conclusively demonstrated to the satisfaction of everyone.
Both views are faced with essentially the same conundrum, that is, initial origination. If you are of the Primacy of Matter persuasion, you must ask how did matter come about and from what? One hypothesis is the so-called “big bang” event or the near instantaneous expansion of an extremely dense concentration of energy (a.k.a. the primordial atom). Even assuming it is correct, there still remains the question of where did this “primordial atom” come from? The noted physicist Stephen Hawking, for example, suggests spontaneous creation or the creation of something from nothing. If you are of the Primacy of Consciousness persuasion, you must ask where did Boundless Consciousness (hereafter just Consciousness) come from? I know of no hypothesis about the origin of Consciousness. Some Primacy of Matter advocates might argue that matter has always existed and the material universe has cycled through endless re-generations. Likewise, some Primacy of Consciousness advocates might argue that Consciousness has always existed and always will exist. In the end, both camps reach a point where they really have no choice but to say that either matter just is or that Consciousness just is. Regardless of which hypothesis you find the most plausible, you are ultimately faced with a leap of faith.
I make the assumption that Consciousness is primary simply because it provides a model that is broader and deeper than materialism. However, one need not throw off materialism entirely when adopting idealism, because materialism can be subsumed under idealism as a secondary construct. In fact, the two models can be construed to be almost identical except with different root assumptions or starting points. The second assumption that I will make is that evolutionary biology is a valid and powerful process operative at many levels. This almost doesn’t need to be put forward as an assumption since the theory describing the process has pretty well been empirically established. There are, however, some points within the theory that can be argued on scientific grounds, such as the reliance upon random change to the exclusion of any other potential factors. The details of the debate around that issue or others are not necessary to this essay. There are also some who reject the theory out-of-hand, because it is inconsistent with their religious ideology. Such individuals will have to tentatively entertain this assumption for purposes of understanding this essay or stop reading now.
An idea related to the first assumption is that of the indivisible whole. If Consciousness is the source state of All-That-Is, then there is only one Consciousness albeit with many derivative consciousnesses. Thus, All-is-in-Unity becomes an unavoidable philosophical position. The indivisible whole hypothesis is supported by science within the limits of the “physical” universe. Experiments that have been replicated support the quantum state of entanglement by which two particles 2 become connected and share information. If the information is changed in one, it immediately changes in the other even if the second particle is on the other side of the universe. Since the exchange of information in the space/time universe is limited by the speed of light and the speed of light is too slow to account for this near instantaneous exchange of information, entanglement implies an underlying non-locality that is outside of space/time.
2. There is no such thing as a particle as the general public understands the word. The continued use of the term is a carry over from classical physics but it no longer has the “physical” characteristics it was thought to have in classical physics. In short, a particle is not made of matter as it was understood in the classical sense. Some now describe a particle as a concentration of energy and others as a packet of information.
One physicist who has described this entangled universe as an indivisible whole is Menas Kafatos. He further suggests that from our perspective this whole only seems to consist of parts. The perception of these parts or aspects arise from Niels Bohr’s Principle of Complementarity, which was originally proposed to explain the complementary pair of particle and wave but was extended by Bohr to go beyond applications in physics. A complementary pair consists of two aspects of one reality. Thus, hot and cold, male and female, wet and dry, life and death, chaos and order and so on are complementary pairs within the ordinary world. The world that we experience appears to express or manifest itself through such pairs. Thus, the relative world arises within an absolute — Consciousness. In a sense then, only the whole represented by these pairs is “real.” Each member of the pair arises from the whole. The apparent function of complementary pairs is to create a dynamic, dimensional condition that permits change, which is necessary for experience. Change is, for example, the driving force for the second assumption mentioned above.
In summary, we are living in a local world of flux that has arisen out of a Boundless Consciousness that is non-local. We are individuated derivatives of Consciousness that within a physical universe that is at root connected or entangled.
The Core Function of Evolution
While the point might be argued, I will present the core function of the evolutionary process to be reproductive success. I suggest this simply because lack of reproductive success brings the “game” to a halt. Thus, first and foremost, evolution must operate in ways that ensures that life thrives. The evolutionary process has been very successful in meeting its core function. The proof of this is evident in the overwhelming diversity of life and the numbers of people that populate this planet. Presently, there are around seven billion people, and projections are that it will likely peak at around ten billion people later in this century. This did not happen due to a failure of evolutionary driven reproductive success or even through marginally successful reproduction.
At root, human life appears to be about sexual reproduction. The strongest evolutionary motive seems to be the sex drive. Take that away and all the derivatives collapse like a house of cards: art, culture, science, politics, sports and so on. The complement of reproduction is extinction. One cognitive scientist, Donald Hoffman, has even run experiments that demonstrate that it is likely that the very way in which we perceive the world (Interface Theory of Reality) is designed to ensure reproductive success. His experiments suggest that our perception is finely tuned to show us what is important to reproductive success, not how “reality” is in any fundamental sense. As the philosopher Emmanuel Kant recognized in his discourses, we can never know a “thing” in itself. All we can know is what our senses present to us and how our minds interpret those sensory signals, which represent a very limited set from what is available. In a manner of speaking, we are framed by our biology and embedded within the matrix of our consciousness.
Very few of us recognize the degree to which we are driven by biological systems that operate outside of our awareness. At best, we often become aware of impulses and desires that arise from the operation of these systems. Acting on these impulses and desires usually generate immediate rewards, though our actions may have long-term consequences. For example, pleasure from sexual activity leads us to regularly engage in this behavior, and it can frequently lead to reproductive outcomes as evidenced by the size of the human population. If there is a reproductive outcome, other biological systems come into play with the purpose of facilitating a successful outcome long-term. For example, hormone-influenced behaviors toward a child and its care produce rewarding feelings and bonding effects. Further, these biological systems rooted in our early evolution have been incorporated into and articulated through culture. For example, culture creates social extensions of these biological systems that define relationships between the sexes and between parents and adult relatives and children that are generally accepted with little critical examination. We are to a great extent like puppets under the control of our biological systems and their cultural extensions. Most of us go through life more or less on script as if we are automatons. For a longer discussion of this topic click this link.
The complementary pair represented by sex plays a critical role in what we think of as reality. Recall that complementary pairs exist within the context of an indivisible whole. Thus, only the whole is “real” in an absolute sense. Neither party to a complementary pair embodies Reality. Any single aspect of such a complementary pair only has reality relative to its complement. Thus, male and female are somewhat like complements of one another. It would appear that a “male” person from his perspective cannot know the whole of which he is one aspect nor can a female person from her perspective know the whole of which she is one aspect.
The question then becomes, can a part ever know the whole? The whole, of course, is ultimately far more than the merged aspects of a single complementary pair. However, solving the riddle posed by a complementary pair can pull aside the veil that hides the indivisible whole. Perhaps sex is the Rosetta Stone that can lead to deciphering the puzzle posed by a reality comprised of a metaphorical dance between the complementary pair male and female. Hindu thought seems to support the idea of sex as a Rosetta Stone. This is evident in a picture I once saw of a statue depicting Brahman. Brahman, in Hindu thought, is the ultimate reality in the universe. Parabrahman is Absolute reality from which the universe arises. The picture of Brahman showed a statue with two faces. On one side of the head was the face of Shiva (representing the male principle) and on the other side was Shakti (representing the female principle). This same construct is also present in the West through the depth psychology of Carl Jung and his concept of the collective unconscious. The animus (male principle) and anima (female principle) are both archetypes in the collective unconscious. They are also aspects of the unconscious of each individual and both influence the psyche of every individual to varying degrees.
The Sexed Ego
How then might one know the whole? The only way to know the whole is to connect with the whole on a fundamental level. To do this one must see beyond the mask that temporarily permits an individuated self to develop and become entangled in the relative world. This mask is often called ego, where ego represents the narrative or story through which most people live. Perhaps the most basic mechanism involved in the development of an ego is sexing. Inculcation of the biological division of sex often begins prior to birth and certainly at birth. The importance of this biological division is given a critical role in virtually all cultures and is evident, in part, through cultural gender norms. Often this division by sex is insisted upon even in the face of the ambiguity often served up at the margins by the inevitable diversity resulting from biological variability. Neither the evolutionary process nor biological reproduction is rigidly precise, though most cultures prefer to pretend that it is invariant. In fact, it is somewhat like a continuum that is heavily weighted at the ends, while the middle supports a richness of diversity.
I said above that sex might be the Rosetta Stone that can lead to deciphering the puzzle posed by a reality grounded in complementary pairs. Anyone who seeks to dissolve relativity arising like a veiling mist from the Absolute must overcome a divided perspective. One’s entanglement in sex seems like a good place to start deconstructing this divided perspective. The Jungian anima and animus archetypes, according to Jung, exist in all of us with different degrees of emphasis and may even be in open conflict in people such as some transgendered individuals. Thus, if one can reconcile or balance these archetypes within one’s mind or psyche, it should be possible to acquire a perspective on the whole. To quote Joseph Chilton Pearce, “To become whole all parts must be left behind for a whole is not the sum of its parts but a different state altogether.” Understandably, almost everyone attempts to objectify one element of the complementary pair male/female to the exclusion of the other element. An alternative might be to integrate the elemental pair into a whole and become non-binary.
Knowing the universal whole through direct experience is sometimes referred to as union with the Absolute or the indivisible whole. This is probably only possible for those who have softened their relativistic conditioning. One cannot experience the whole while deeply entangled in relative thinking. Striving to exemplify one side or the other of a complementary pair simply perpetuates entanglement in a relative perspective. Thus, a likely first step is to bring into greater balance complementary pairs and for reasons already given, sex/gender seems like a good place to begin the work, though there are other possible starting points. Even if one achieves no more than a better balance between anima and animus within one’s personality, there should follow a better integrated psyche.
How might one go about such an undertaking. There are many possible methods that might be employed but perhaps the two most essential methods are first to identify and then pay close attention to those complementary pairs in which one is entangled. The goal here is to understand the tensions that drive your ego narrative (“Know thy self.”). For example, if you’re entangled in politics, stop reacting and start reflecting on how the tensions produced by politics engages your personal narrative and thereby affects your thoughts and feelings. Become an observer of the process rather than an unwitting participant.
No doubt, one of the complementary pairs that one will be entangled in will be sex and gender since this is almost a universal source of entanglement. The fundamental tensions here will derive from innate biological programs, culturally instilled programs and personal programs learned from experience. These programs usually operate outside of one’s conscious awareness. Thus, make a practice of trying to bring these programs into conscious awareness through your attention. When you become consciously aware of them, recognize how their influence operates through your body/mind but has no effect on the attentive awareness that is inspecting them. For example, when one of your sex/gender programs is aroused by a stimulus in the environment, try to follow this back to its fundamental source, that is, the program that drives it and then try to understand the underlying purpose of that program. Try to deconstruct it and stand back from it. Through understanding try to bring this reactive response under the control of your self-agency (Part I, p. 1). Follow this up by trying to imaginatively or intuitively bring the complement of this program into awareness and perform the same type of examination that you did on its inverse program. Persons on the transgender spectrum should find this easier to do since they probably have, to some degree, pairs of complementary sex/gender programs operating.
Having cleansed oneself of the illusions of a life grounded in relative programming, one settles into the natural mind. The journey of transformation doesn’t end at the natural mind. From the natural mind one can live a contented life, or one can seek intuitive knowledge of the Absolute. All complementary pairs are merely part reflections of fundamental aspects of the Absolute. To know directly the indivisible whole requires a critical shift in perspective. A shift that transcends one’s assumption that “I am a body/mind.” The use of the term “seek” implies that this is something to be found, but in fact it is a realization of a perspective that is always available. When the shift happens, it has profound implications for how one views the relative world and one’s place in it.
There are things that one can do to prepare for this shift in perspective. Many use meditation, cultivation of Presence or Self-inquiry (click here for elaboration) to “fertilize the ground,” but it can’t be made to happen (see Taken). The reason it can’t be made to happen is simply that it requires a perspective that originates outside of the psychological structure referred to as ego. Doing is the province of the ego and the ego can’t take a perspective that requires an awareness operating outside of ego’s structure any more than an eye can examine itself.
When this shift takes place, one realizes that one is not a body/mind but the awareness that inhabits the body/mind. This is not an intellectual understanding but a direct and intuitive knowing. The word “inhabits” is used in the same sense that one inhabits a dwelling. The person inhabiting a dwelling is not the dwelling, and should the dwelling be torn down, the person who inhabited the dwelling goes on. In the same sense, awareness and the individuated consciousness expressed through it arises from the indivisible whole and persists for as long as the Absolute persists. When one is taken by the realization that one is not a body/mind but pristine awareness itself, one also recognizes that pure awareness is devoid of all dualities. Awareness is not good or evil, not male or female, not life or death, not order or chaos. It just is. With this realization comes freedom from history and tradition, culture and words. Freedom from the past and from the future. Freedom to simply be. True perceptual liberation from entanglement in the illusion of complementarity and relativistic reality (see my poem Outlaw that tries to capture such a shift in perspective that happened to me in my late 20s).
The nature of evil will be addressed from a perspective consistent with with panentheism (see Definitions). Panentheism is a philosophy that was first articulated in 1828 by the German philosopher Karl Krause. The central feature of this view is the primacy of consciousness. Consciousness is construed as an unbound field of consciousness existing independent of spacetime in which we and the universe are entangled (hereafter simply Source). Some might equate the Source with God or Unity Consciousness. Everything material is a manifestation of Source, which creates an apparent dualism between matter and spirit or consciousness. Life plays an important role in this apparent dualism, which depends on subject /object relationships that require a perceiving organism.
The question naturally arises as to why the material universe and subject/object relations exists. One perspective is that they exists to provide the Source with an experiential context. Creation of an experiential context suggests that the Source is engaged in self-development. The material universe then is an artifact of Consciousness that has rendered a portion of itself ignorant of the rest so that dualistic representations of itself can interact. One might think of the material universe as a canvas created by an artist for the development of his or her creative talents. In short, the dynamic interactions that we think of as life are permutations of subject/object relations grounded in the Source. Ultimately speaking, subject and object arise from an indivisible source and the material universe is an illusion.
Human beings represent an important component of the material world simply because their capabilities greatly expand the range of experience possible. The key psychological component governing most subject/object interactions involving human beings is ego. Ego is the identity cloaking that portion of the Source manifest in human form. The development of ego draws a veil between self and the Source, thereby creating the dualistic illusion of me and not me. Everything animate and non-animate beyond one’s self-awareness is not me.
Good and evil, therefore, represent a dualistic pair of categories that can be applied to intentional actions by ego in the material world. This dichotomy is, like all dichotomies, ultimately an illusion because the Source is beyond dichotomies. It is a spiritual singularity or indivisible whole. However, it is a very “real” dichotomy for individuals lacking direct experience of the Source and therefore awareness of the illusion. If the Source created the material universe in order to impose a counterpoint to itself for the purpose of gaining experience, then the “struggle” between good and evil would appear to be an important and necessary dimension of experience.
In other terms, good and evil can be thought of as the difference between enlightened actions and actions grounded in ignorance. When construed this way, actions grounded in ignorance blind one to one’s true nature, that is, as an aspect of Source or God. Thus, evil arises out of spiritual ignorance that leads one to invest one’s sense of being in ego. Life then consists of each individual’s struggle to overcome ignorance and thereby achieve enlightenment. This dichotomy between enlightenment and ignorance might be thought of as a bipolar construct where one end is anchored by selflessness (loving/kindness) and the other end is anchored by selfishness (egotism). The further one’s identity falls toward the selfishness or egotism end of the scale the greater one’s ignorance and the potential for evil actions.
An interviewer at the Nuremberg trials for Nazi war criminals was asked if he had learned anything from his interviews. He replied that what he had learned was that evil was the total absence of empathy. Empathy can be construed as the ability to expand one’s sense of “me” to include others. Carried to its logical conclusion, this inclusive expansion submerges ego and becomes selflessness, which is the antithesis of “me” or ego. True selflessness requires the evolution of consciousness which requires the expansion of empathy that leads to a life grounded in compassion and love.
Evil then in this scheme of reasoning arises from attempts to gratify ego desires. Desire is what one wants as distinct from what one needs. One needs shelter but wants a penthouse apartment on Affluence Avenue. Desires are rooted in status seeking, righteousness, jealousy, lust, pride, power, honor, envy, fame and fortune along with many other similar obstacles to the expansion of empathy, spiritual development and enlightenment. When objects are perceived by ego as merely means to satisfy desire, they have no inherent value independent of one’s use of them. People, animals, plants, physical elements are all treated as objects for satisfying one’s desires. The desires of ego are an expression of ignorance and the source of evil in the world. Satan, in Christian theology, might be thought of as the personification of ego desire. Thus, to be consumed by the fires of ego desire is, metaphorically speaking, to be in Hell.
Equating self with ego is the initial step leading to treating others as objects. Think of this initial step as ego becoming an image manager. We are almost all image managers to some degree. The greater the degree to which we engage in image management the greater the extent of our self-absorption. An image manager desires ego to be viewed by others in a particular persona. Sometimes one has an intentionally constructed public persona and a private persona that differ from one another. Both will involve some degree of deception. A public persona deceives others while the private persona deceives self. Self-deception perpetuates ignorance, which can only be avoided by not equating self with ego.
The ego, as image manager, makes choices that are believed to maintain or enhance ego’s self-image or self-conception. A self-image can embody a positive or negative persona depending upon the purposes that it serves. Ego affects choices about things that include but aren’t limited to one’s personal narrative, physical appearance, possessions, public behavior, employment, social and intimate relationships. Image management is about “ME” (ego). I’m an important person, I have authority, I’m no good, I’m a victim, I’m beautiful, I’m handsome, I’m entitled, I’m helpless, I’m popular or even I’m spiritual, among many others. Once one has a “ME” narrative, then that narrative begins to control much of what one does. Ego becomes fully self-absorbed and to be self-absorbed implies that one has a selfish identity. A selfish identity means one acts from ignorance, which makes one highly susceptibility to engaging in what might be perceived as evil.
Evil is not dependent upon any particular act but rather on the intent of the actor. To do harm to another individual unintentionally is not evil. The same harm resulting from an intentional act committed in the service of ego desire is evil. Graduations of evil or ignorant actions depend upon the degree of damage to “objects” that result from the satisfaction of the ego’s desires. The nature of the harm whether physical, psychological, social or economic is less important than the degree of damage knowingly caused. Evil of whatever degree is subject to escalation through the power of an egoist to impose his or her desire broadly. Given someone with power willing to cause damage in the service of ego desire and the evil will be multiplied. Acts affecting groups of people are greater evils than comparable solitary acts simply due to the multiplicative effect of power in the service of ego desire. Another consideration is complicity in evil through support for or ignoring the action of others, the outcomes of which serve one’s own ego desires. Bystanders are not necessarily innocent but may be passive partners in evil actions and thereby bear part of the burden of such evil. A final consideration is an act that takes on the appearance of being motivated by good intentions. Surely, there are selfless acts motivated by good intentions. However, the criterion for evil offered herein pertains to acts motivated by ego desire. A benefit that accrues as a result of actions motivated by ego does not justify the actions or neutralize the evil. The point is simply that there is in some manner of speaking a continuum of sorts along which one might arrange acts of evil with varying degrees of precision. While all actions in the service of ego desire are, by definition, evil there are lesser and greater evils among them.
A question can also be raised about evil and the satisfaction of needs. This poses a fundamental question about natural rights. When a mountain lion kills a deer for food, we would not describe this action as evil. It is the natural right of the lion to acquire sustenance from its environment. In the case of human beings, it might also be argued that they have a natural right to meet their life sustaining needs. One could argue that a human animal has the same natural rights as a lion and taking its sustenance by force is no more evil than the taking by the lion. Evil would be avoided, however, only by using no more force than is necessary, taking only the minimum that is needed or a fair apportionment whichever is less and engaging in no retribution. Even so, an enlightened individual would recognize that the situation is simply one “act” in an evolving human drama intended to provide opportunities to overcome ignorance. Thus, such an enlightened individual might refuse to participate in the drama and accept starvation. By doing so, the enlightened individual maintains detachment from the drama of the material world while serving as an example to others and possibly contributing to their spiritual advancement.
Finally, there is the general question of how should one respond to evil action? This will depend upon the development of one’s sense of selflessness. Someone operating from the selfish side of the identity scale will respond in-kind and strike back in anger with a desire for revenge and thereby perpetuating ignorance. This is the morality of retribution. If a direct response isn’t possible or avoided out of fear, the object of the evil action may at least harbor ill will (hatred) toward the perpetrator, which will also serve to perpetuate ignorance. In the case of a response to an unprovoked action engaged in for defensive reasons even if the defensive actions are in-kind, they are not evil. A purely reflexive defensive action may be grounded in ignorance but it isn’t an intentional attempt to satisfy ego desire. Ignorant because the defender has not learned the negative moral implications of emotionally motivated in-kind, counter-aggression. This is, of course, the way the majority of human beings can be expected to act, which often leads to an escalating cycle of response and counter-response. Ignorance follows the path of least resistance and ignorance is the soil in which evil takes root.
A person operating from the middle of the scale will probably engage in defensive counter-aggression but without emotional content. In other words, an emotionally detached response is more likely to be a constrained response. Someone operating from the selflessness side of the identity scale will recognize the evil nature of the “attack” and the need for a measured response. Such an individual will engage in counter-aggression as a last resort and will then only do so with emotional detachment. This is not unlike the concept of warrior-priests embodied in the Chinese Shaolin whom legend has it used moral authority, paradoxical responses, persuasion and acceptance when the object of evil action. Direct action was only taken to protect life. These priests were alleged to have the skills necessary to respond in a graduated manner that never employed more counter force than was necessary. This graduated and minimal defense was made possible by complete emotional detachment and thereby without investment of ego. Such an individual would have a well developed understanding of the nature of evil and how to make a humane response to it. Finally, a fully selfless and enlightened person who is the object of evil action might embrace and absorb the action to the point of physical annihilation knowing that the action cannot do any real injury to spirit or essence and recognizing that such a response to evil may serve as an instructional demonstration.
In conclusion, an undeveloped or under-developed sense of empathy is clearly an obstacle to spiritual growth. Thus, being ruled by ego desire and thereby satisfying one’s wants through treating everything that is “not me” as an object with no purpose but to serve one’s desires blocks the path to spiritual development. To open the path to spiritual development requires a freely made choice to let go of attachments to wants and expand one’s sense of empathy through identification and perspective taking until ignorance and selfishness are crowded out by love and compassion. When the spiritual path is freely embraced one has taken one giant step in the evolution of consciousness, selflessness and enlightenment.
The discussion of this program is organized around different states of the “self.”
1. The starting point will be with the identity-self, which is the state in which one is fully identified with the body/mind. The “I” that thinks that it is the operative component of the body/mind is generally known as the ego or, as I call it in some of my writing, the fictive-self (see Automatic Programs in Chapter One beginning on page 21 of Self-agency and Beyond) or personal narrative (the “me” story). This is where most people undertaking a meditation program for the first time are coming from. Ego is the subject and everything else is perceived as a separate object. This is the dualistic perspective.
a. Initial meditation techniques usually have one sit quietly and erect, breathing deeply and slowly from the diaphragm. Let’s just call it “sitting meditation.” If the eyes are open, they will be oriented either toward the floor, a blank wall or possibly a mandala. If the eyes are shut, one may be instructed to imagine having the eyes focused on the area between the eyes, or no attention is given to the eyes at all when closed. Some instructions might suggest focusing on an object, e.g., candle, and some may suggest use of a mantra or chant, e.g., AUM. The technique used is less important than its “goodness of fit” for you.
b. This is the point where many meditators experience what is called “monkey mind.” The goal during this phase of sitting meditation is to simply learn to relax and observe the activity of the mind without getting seduced by it. As one gains some experience, the frenetic activity experienced by most new meditators will slow down. This more subdued stage might be called the “hummingbird mind.” The mind still flits about but not as energetically as in the beginning.
2. After things have settled down, one will recognize something of a perceptual shift developing that establishes a division. This shift is the identity-self morphing into an observer and an ego.
a. During this phase, one should “side” with the observer and allow some distancing from the ego to develop. One should be a somewhat disinterested observer of the activities of the ego. The goal is to begin identifying with the observer rather than with the ego and its body/mind.
b. As one establishes identification with the observer rather than the ego, it will become apparent that the observer is not to be found in the story that comprises the ego nor can it be found anywhere in the body. Many aspects of “the fictive-self” will come under observation. Some of these may have been buried and outside of conscious awareness. I have discussed these elsewhere as automatic programs or APs (see Automatic Programs in Chapter One beginning on page 21 of Self-agency and Beyond). Some of these APs you may recognize as being the basis for dysfunctional beliefs, emotions and behaviors. This is usually a good time to deconstruct such APs. Often just observing these arise and dissipate will lead to their undoing. However, if you think a more direct approach is needed, I have discussed such methods in Chapters Two, Three and Four in Part I of Self-agency and Beyond. Carl Jung said, “Whatever does not emerge as consciousness returns as Destiny.” That is, you are likely to keep repeating unconscious patterns until they become conscious, are examined and neutralized.
3. Let’s now think of the observer as the mindful-self. At this time, it is useful to begin what is called “mindful meditation.” Mindful meditation can of course be done as part of sitting meditation, but it is most effective when used to carry meditation into one’s daily life. Mindful meditation is simply paying attention, which most of us think is easy enough to do until we consciously begin observing our efforts to do so. Your attention will, by default, slip when it isn’t held captive by an engaging task. This is the way your brain is “wired” and is discussed elsewhere (see Chapter Six beginning on page 78 or Self-agency and Beyond) as the default mode network or relaxed attention network (RAN).
a. The objective here is to have the observer closely monitor what the body/mind is doing as it goes about its daily activities. In short, your meditation is literally on what you’re doing moment to moment. What you will observe is that many of the body’s routines are run by APs, and the default mode will try to kick in and begin to generate unrelated mental content whose purpose is to reinforce the fictive-self. If the mindful-self isn’t careful, it will get seduced by this content and lose focus on current activity.
b. Losing focus during mindfulness is especially likely when one isn’t engaged in doing something. During such times, the best tactic is to become present with anything that is available in the moment. Be present with or mindful of the sound of a breeze blowing through leaves, your dog, a ticking clock, sunlight streaming in through a window, a flower, a ceramic cup, the rise and fall of your abdomen as you breathe or whatever is available. Presence is the focus of Leonard Jacobson’s and Richard Moss’s teachings.
c. When one becomes well established in mindfulness meditation and can maintain focus on what one is doing from moment to moment or simply being present with something manifest in the moment, you are in what I call the “Teflon mind.” You are now ready for the emergence of the inquiring- self. The inquiring-self is named for the activity that establishes it, which is called “self-inquiry.” This method is often associated with the teachings of the Indian sage Sri Ramana Maharishi and is discussed in Self-agency and Beyond in Chapter Seven beginning on page 89.
4. The purpose of self-inquiry is similar to mindfulness except that it is not focused specifically on what one is doing or something that is present but on being aware of being aware from moment to moment or being present in the spacious moment. A psychiatrist, Bessel van der Kolk, identifies the medial prefrontal cortex as the part of the brain responsible for experiencing the present moment. This is located behind the area of the face called the brow. No doubt, this is why Kriya Yoga emphasizes keeping attention gently focused on this area during meditation.
a. The basic idea in self-inquiry is to establish a conscious sense of being a field of awareness. Rupert Spira teaches a simple and direct method of finding that sense. He suggests that one ask oneself the question, “Am I aware?” To answer the question, one must note that one is aware of being aware. That is where you want to be. Once you are there, you should try to relax into that state of being and remain there. There is an exercise at the end of The Looking Glass that will help you experience a state of pristine awareness.
b. As the establishment of this state progresses, there will be a perceptual shift. When this happens, you will identify yourself with conscious awareness. You will experience yourself simply as a field of awareness that includes the body/mind. However, you will not identify yourself as being the body/mind.
1. With the shift described above, you have become an aware-self or what I have described as having a natural mind. This is a refined state of duality in which you are clear of most, if not all, dysfunctional APs and are free of making or, at least, taking seriously judgments, beliefs, opinions and expectations. It is a state that allows one to hold a dispassionate view of the world and its events. It is not, however, what some call Enlightenment or Self-realization, which is a non-dual state. Arriving at what some refer to as simply I AM, you have done about all you can do. The rest depends on Grace and what I’ve referred to as being Taken.
2. According to some teachers, Enlightenment has several progressive states. There appear to be at least three states once the condition referred to as Enlightenment or Self-realization is entered. The first of these is accompanied by experiences of what some call Void Consciousness, a state described as Pure Being. It is suggested that many think this is the end state, and thinking this constrains any further progress. This may be followed by experiences of what is called God (or Christ) Consciousness, a state described as sense of Divine-Love. Finally, there may be experiences of what is called Unity Consciousness, a state described as being Love-Bliss (see charts of states here)
This third state is one in which it is said that one comes to the full recognition that one is an integral aspect of an indivisible whole. There is a direct understanding that this whole is Source Consciousness – the ground of all being and unconditional love.
Caveat: I have very limited knowledge of neurology and brain processes. What I present here is my understanding of scientific reports about the working of a particular aspect of the brain as a metaphor to explore meditation.
Brain imaging studies have recently identified a network of brain areas and their associated functions that have been named the default mode network. This network has been labeled default because it seems to be responsible for most brain activity taking place when one’s attention is not specifically engaged. It would appear that focused attention draws largely upon other brain areas and those areas represent a separate network, which to my knowledge has not been labeled. For simplicity’s sake let’s hereafter just refer to these as the Focused Attention Network (FAN) and the Relaxed Attention Network (RAN). These networks are illustrated in the figure at end of this essay. We are all familiar with the notion of left brain and right brain functions, but apparently there is another “divide” along the lines of a brain using focused attention and a brain whose attention processes are relaxed. As with the left and right brain concept, the RAN and FAN brain states do not necessarily mean exclusive functions for each network but rather primary functions. The FAN is frequently directed externally but can also be directed internally at specific cognitive tasks or physical states. The FAN appears to be more analytic and rational, while the RAN seems to be more metaphorical and imaginative.
The FAN appears to engage those areas of the brain that govern executive functions in the brain such as active attention, decision making, problem solving, planning and working memory. It accesses and engages knowledge and skills that an individual has acquired for engaging tasks of various sorts. It also exercises control over motor functions needed to engage in voluntary actions like drawing or surgery. If you’re trying to cognitively inventory the things that you will need to take with you on a trip, to relax a tight muscle in your neck, learn how to solve quadratic equations or teach a child to read, the FAN is engaged. However, when activities requiring focused attention come to an end, RAN is automatically your default state. Clearly, if you’re doing nothing but sitting staring out a window, the RAN will engage. However, when you’re engaged in routine activities that don’t require focused attention such as running on a treadmill or driving down a stretch of road with little or no traffic, you usually will default to RAN. Even when focused attention may be needed, boredom can result in inattention and defaulting to RAN.
When RAN is engaged what you get appears similar to free association or random presentation. In this state, thoughts, memories, images and feelings stream into awareness often with little or no apparent structure. As long as these stimuli stream, you remain in RAN. However, if you focus on one or more of these stimuli and begin to engage with it, FAN comes back into operation. Thus, FAN can be focused on either an external or an internal task. To illustrate the process of going from RAN to an internal version of FAN, think of standing in front of a conveyor belt and watching suitcases streaming by. This is analogous to RAN-generated thoughts and images streaming through awareness. If you grab one of these suitcases off of the conveyor belt and begin unpacking it, this is analogous to focusing on one thought or image and following a chain of associations elicited by your attention to it. You are now back in FAN. This, however, is usually a less engaged level of FAN than the level, for example, required for solving quadratic equations or teaching someone to read. This suggests that there are degrees of FAN and RAN, meaning that they are not “digital” states that are either on or off.
My hypothesis is that RAN is largely responsible for the creation of a fictive-self, self-narrative or ego and especially for maintaining and reinforcing it. One way of thinking about the ego is as a psychological construct that functions as the subject or “doer” assigned responsibility for our activities. This fictive-self begins forming early in the developmental period and generally becomes stronger as a child ages into an adult. It seems to me, again from introspective observation, that most of the activity generated by RAN is to bring into awareness thoughts, images and memories associated with our experiences. These become the “bricks” from which we build, repair and reinforce our fictive-self.
Initially, the mind begins a process of organizing this information into some sort of kernel story that is rooted in and identified with the body/mind. This becomes the core construct around which our fictive-self or personal narrative evolves. This fictive-self or ego largely has the function of providing a sense of coherence and continuity to our life experience. It becomes the basis of the meaning we assign to our lives. As our narrative becomes fairly well established more and more of what arises from the RAN are thoughts, ideas, images, attitudes, opinions and judgments (among others inputs) that reinforce our fictive-self and ensure our identification with the narrative.
The fictive-self can be recognized through the stream of “self-talk” that dominates your awareness when the FAN is engaged with content RAN has generated. Much of this “self-talk” can be recognized as rehearsal of one’s personal narrative. We become the fiction we have created to explain our self to our self. We are like a hamster trapped in an exercise wheel — always running but never getting anywhere. If you want to escape, you must first become aware of the structure of your personal narrative by examining the themes in your self-talk and what they imply about the beliefs, opinions and attitudes largely operating beneath your awareness and directing you like a puppet master. “Cutting” the strings linking you to your puppet master is the most essential step required for liberation.
I would suggest that very young children, before the core construct for the fictive-self is established, are not individuated. Therefore, their consciousness is more likely to be resonate with what some describe as Unity consciousness. Perhaps this is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Or, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, regain your “natural mind.” In other words, you cannot access Unity consciousness or the Absolute (“kingdom of heaven”) unless you can first learn to stand aside from the fictive-self (“be converted”) and return to a less individuated manifestation of consciousness (“become as little children”).
One activity that comes to mind while thinking about RAN is sitting meditation. When one sits to “practice” meditation, two things are likely to happen. First, the FAN is disengaged and, second, the RAN is engaged. These are operations that most of us easily do with hardly a thought. However, the purpose of meditation cannot be to simply engage the RAN, because if that were true, then there would be no difference between meditation and daydreaming. So, the question arises, what is the relationship between the RAN and meditation?
Many meditation teachers initially advocate the practice of sitting meditation. Sitting meditation is usually described as concentrating on a specific focus such as a rhythmic function like the breath, an auditory stimulus or a visual stimulus. The nature of the auditory or visual stimulus suggested will vary depending upon the tradition from which the suggestion is coming, but there is no evidence that I am aware of from brain imaging studies indicating any functional difference between the effects of different stimuli from different traditions. For example, if the focus is on a sound such as “Aum” or “Amen,” then during mindfulness meditation one simply uses this sound either vocalized or sub-vocalized as a focus, and whenever one recognizes that the focus of attention has drifted, the instruction is to simply mentally note the deviation and return to the focus.
It seems that the basic process in this form of meditation is to learn to use a solitary focus of attention that requires no thought, which engages FAN at a low level. Keeping FAN engaged at a low level with a stimulus requiring no thought helps avoid becoming entangled in the activity of the RAN. Once this condition is met, one can observe the products of RAN running in the background, so to speak. It has been said that the function of the mind is to generate thoughts, just as the function of the heart is to pump blood. If that is so, it is the RAN that is largely responsible for generating the thoughts.
What one must learn to avoid is engaging FAN with any of the stimuli thrown up by RAN. Of course, this will happen and happen regularly for beginners. The only solution is to gently withdraw FAN from the RAN product it engaged and move it back to the meditative focus.
In the process of learning to hold FAN at “arms length” and simply observing the products of RAN passing through awareness, one begins to get a good sense of what sorts of stimuli are being generated by RAN. Frequently, patterns will emerge among the stimuli passing through awareness. This is how one begins to get a handle on the beliefs, opinions and attitudes largely operating beneath your awareness. Many people may also have emotional reactions to patterns of stimuli that relate to negative events in their lives and may be initially overwhelmed by their emotions. These events have probably made contributions of importance to your personal narrative. They may also be the source of especially problematic attitudes, beliefs and opinions that affect your functioning. Becoming aware of these potent cognitive components “pulling your strings” is the first step in cutting those strings.
Most spiritual teachings that point one toward Self-realization consider being able to sustain full presence in the moment (the natural mind) to be a necessary condition. Regaining the natural mind first requires cutting those puppet strings directing your life from outside of conscious awareness. By presence what is meant is that what you experience, whether events, thoughts, feelings, sensations, objects or people, are simply that. You register these stimuli in your awareness but your mind brings to them no preconceived interpretation and makes no judgment arising from such interpretations. This does not necessarily mean that you will draw no conclusion about what you are aware of but that any such conclusion will be untainted by the content of ego. You will discover that in most instances no conclusions are necessary at all. What you observe simply is what it is and requires nothing from you.
It would seem that insight meditation is the next step in one’s meditation practice. The transition from sitting to insight meditation is not a sharp or clear transition. However, at some point the process of noting the activity generated by the RAN and recognizing patterns related to your beliefs, opinions and attitudes begins to develop into an intuitive understanding of the conditioned nature of that aspect of consciousness we call the self. With this intuitive insight comes an opportunity to begin the process of standing aside or dis-identifying with the “fictive or narrative self” that is the illusion you refer to as “me.”
“The illusion of permanent self dissolving as awareness penetrates and knows the illusion. Moving deeper, beyond the small self, beyond aversion and attachment, beyond ignorance.” Barbara Brodsky and John Orr (meditation teachers).
Meditation then becomes a natural abiding in awareness of awareness. One’s attention is both relaxed and focused in the present moment. One does not dwell on the imagined future or recollected past. One does not spin “ego stories” about the self nor explanatory stories about others, which can include institutions, organizations or people. One is in the natural mind. Knowing Unity consciousness or the Absolute still depends upon grace (see Taken), but one has done all that is possible to prepare for it and is able to expand into it should it occur.
There is one practice, which I think of as contemplative meditation, that is worth mentioning separately. This is the use, by one school of Zen meditation, of what is known as a koan. A koan is a riddle that is used as the focus of meditation. For example, the widely quoted koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Zen is not the only source of such riddles. Here are a couple from non-Zen sources, “The only way out is in” and “There is only one mind.” It appears that the purpose of a koan is to shut down the RAN by silencing its near incessant chatter with an intellectual conundrum that has no rational solution. This not only serves as a focus for FAN but exhausts FAN’s efforts to bring rational understanding to the conundrum. At the point of exhaustion one might say rationality implodes, leaving what Zen refers to as “no mind” or, according to the Hindu sage Pantanjali, puts one beyond words and concepts. The American mystic Franklin Merrill-Wolff describes this state as consciousness without an object.
Two views of the brain with the RAN in blue and the FAN in orange and yellow.
In the above, I discussed what in neuroscience is called the “default mode network.” In that section, I relabeled the default network as the “relaxed attention network” (RAN) and the alternate state as the “focused attention network” (FAN). To review part of the above discussion:
My hypothesis is that RAN is largely responsible for the creation of a fictive-self, self-narrative or ego and especially for maintaining and reinforcing it [emphasis added]. One way of thinking about the ego is as a psychological construct that functions as the subject or “doer” assigned responsibility for our activities. This fictive-self begins forming early in the developmental period and generally becomes stronger as a child ages into an adult. It seems to me, from introspective observation, that most of the activity generated by RAN serves to bring into awareness thoughts, images and memories associated with our experiences. These become the “bricks” from which we build, repair and reinforce our fictive-self.
Now, a recent study discussed in the New Scientist has provided evidence that supports my hypothesis:
“The team gave 20 volunteers infusions on two days, once containing 75 micrograms of LSD, the other [day] a placebo. Then volunteers lay in a scanner and had their brains imaged with three different techniques, which together built up a comprehensive picture of neural activity, both with the drug and without.”
Carhart-Harris et al.
MRI scans showed that LSD caused brain activity to become less coordinated in regions that make up what is called the default mode network. The size of the effect was correlated with participants’ ratings of their own ego dissolution, suggesting that this network underlies a stable sense of self [my emphasis].”
Another imaging type, magnetoencephalography (MEG), showed that the rhythm of alpha brainwaves weakened under LSD, an effect that was also correlated with ego dissolution. Alpha rhythms are stronger in humans than other animals, and Carhart-Harris thinks it could be a signature of high-level human consciousness.
Click here for journal paper.
The outline of Goswami’s Brain-Mind model presented below doesn’t capture all of the nuances of the development that the model received in his book The Self-aware Universe. I have used a few terms, especially in the upper part of the Figure at the end, that he doesn’t use but that I think are comparable and to which he probably would not object. For example, he uses the term Unitive Consciousness and I used the term Unified Field of Consciousness (UFC). I have also used three terms that come from David Bohm’s model (Super Implicate Order, Implicate Order and Explicate Order). Bohm indicates that the explication of a collapsing wave of possibility by its unfolding from the Implicate Order (transcendent dimension) into the Explicate Order (material dimension) is what creates our perception of time. Since in Goswami’s model the transcendent non-local consciousness, (NLC) is obscured from local consciousness (LC). I offer Bohm’s idea of how time is created as the basis for the temporal discontinuity that obscures the one from the other. Goswami does discuss a temporal discontinuity as being what obscures our unconscious programming from our conscious awareness so proposing a complimentary temporal discontinuity as the obscuring factor between NLC and LC seems reasonable and provides a certain symmetry.
I have also included in the upper portion of the figure the term Quantum Monad (QM), which is a term used by Goswami but not until a later book (The Physics of the Soul, as I recall) and is roughly equivalent to what is often thought of as a soul. A QM is one possibility from a more complex set of possibilities which he refers to as a Bliss Body and I have referred to as an Oversoul (OS). If you think of the UFC (NLC, if you prefer) as a fabric then an OS is like one thread contributing to that fabric. An OS is too complex for explication into a single physical body/brain in the material dimension so a portion of it is explicated, i.e., a QM. Thus, LC can be thought of as a node of NLC that has its roots in the transcendent dimension but is generally unaware of its connection to the OS from which it is being projected, which in turn is an integral part of the UFC or NLC. The veil obscuring NLC from LC appears to me to be the temporal discontinuity created by the explication process.
Briefly, as a QM and it’s physical host grow and develop it is presented with many situations and choices. These choices can be thought of as a wave of possibilities with varying probabilities of being chosen and thus collapsed into actuality. Some possibilities are more probable than others for a variety of reasons, including biological programming (e.g., an innate preference for a sweet taste) and socio/cultural influences operating from outside the individual nudging him or her toward particular choices (e.g., parental preferences). Choices have outcomes and if an outcome is rewarding the same choice becomes more probable in future situations in which the previous choice is present. On the other hand, if the outcome is punitive the choice becomes less probable. Eventually, a program based on classical memory and consisting of a type of situation, a choice and an outcome is created and becomes an automatic process that operates beneath conscious awareness. Thus, our life is shaped over time and eventually the vast majority of our thinking, feeling and behavior arise from automatic programs (APs) [see Chapter One, page 21] that keep us largely on autopilot (some suggest as much as 99.99% of our activity is on autopilot). The choice made by an AP is what we sometimes refer to as the “path of least resistance.” Conscious awareness is engaged with dealing with those situations that arise for which we don’t have automatic programs to engage the situation. Conscious awareness also observes the thoughts, feelings and behaviors arising from the unconscious APs. There is a demonstrated brief time lag between the choice made by an AP and awareness of it and its execution.
One effect of this temporal discontinuity is that conscious awareness begins to generate an explanation for why certain thoughts, feelings and/or behaviors are occurring. What evolves is a “fictive self” or agent that is allegedly responsible for these occurrences and constructs an explanation for them or one’s personal narrative. This agent is also referred to as self, ego and I. Thus, if one defines “free will” as the ability to make lower probability choices than the automatic and high probability choice that we would make on autopilot, then the most basic exercise of “free will” is the ability to say “no” to an AP choice arising from outside of awareness. One obstacle to doing this other than the effort required is that often the time lag between decision and awareness is long enough that the temporal discontinuity obscures the operation of the AP. Thus, our action appears to be a reflex response that seems to be coincident with awareness.
Goswami suggests that one effect of meditation practice is that this time lag diminishes and the temporal discontinuity obscuring one’s AP from conscious awareness is weakened. The other effect at this level is that sitting quietly and allowing thoughts and feelings to arise into awareness and pass through provides practice in not reflexively acting on such thoughts and feelings. Goswami likens a thought to a quantum object. One can focus on and follow a thought and observe its path or one can focus on its content and explore the richness of its content but one can’t do both at the same time. Thus, a thought can be compared to either a wave form or a particle form. In meditation, one attempts to develop skill at avoiding following or exploring the thoughts and feelings that arise into consciousness. Thus, systematic application of meditation to develop local consciousness helps one acquire the tools needed to be less of a victim of AP and more deliberate or mindful about one’s choices.
Meditation can also help one bridge the temporal discontinuity obscuring LC from NLC. By learning to deliberately minimize one’s attention to stimuli being generated by APs and the external conditions that activate them, it becomes possible to more easily access NLC. One effect of this is to open the doors to a more creative life since NLC contains infinite possibilities although with limits on the degree LC can engage them. Goswami suggests that Jung’s collective unconscious is an aspect of NLC and that the archetypes (defined as quantum objects) that are available therein constrain the infinite possibilities to a set available for exploitation by humanity. These constraints on possibility along with constraints on choices shaped by biology, language and culture are what create the consensus reality that permits a sense of shared experience. Personally, I view consensus reality at its broadest as a “fictive self” for the species and somewhat more narrowly as a “fictive self” for any given society. Finally, weakening the temporal discontinuity between LC and NLC also opens up the possibility of direct experience of the UFC, which many mystics have described as experiencing the unity of all things or merging with the mind of God.