Tag Archives: Jesus

The Natural Mind

          The natural mind is called by many names, including among others, the unconditioned mind, original-mind, presence and selflessness. It is, in my view, the unconditioned awareness that you were born into when you entered this world. It is always present but most of us have “lost” it.

How could you lose your natural mind? The process begins to unfold very early. There are three aspects to the process. The first might be called primary programs that are biological in nature. These programs send signals into conscious awareness that we react to. Hunger is one example. When you become aware of a hunger signal, you engage in activity directed at responding to the signal. You engage in activity that results in you consuming food, and the program rewards your activity by eliciting satisfaction. Secondary programs come to be built upon primary programs through choices made and repeated. At the earliest stages one has little choice except to reject or accept what is offered by a caretaker. Later, one begins to have a wider range of choices and some independence from caretakers’ choices on your behalf is achieved. Through choices and repetition of those choices new programs are acquired.

Once a program is established it becomes automatic. Given a choice of foods, you don’t have to consciously think about the choices and, even if you do, the probability favors you making a selection that has a repeated history under similar conditions and in similar circumstances. Your automatic program (AP) makes the decision for you and when an impulse to act on the decision enters your conscious awareness (CA), you mentally say to yourself something like, “I think I’ll have candied yams. They are really tasty.” When given choices that you have no history with, such as in an ethnic restaurant whose menu is outside your range of experience, you may be conflicted without your “inner guidance” and will have to actually apply conscious decision making to the choices by seeking more information about the items on the menu or, failing availability of sufficient information, resort to a random selection.

Even in such a situation, your AP’s may come into play as you gain information and an AP partially matches up with a menu item because of some commonality in an ingredient or ingredients with established choices. An AP may make a decision based on additional information and send a choice (as an impulse) into CA and you mentally say to yourself, “Oh yeah, that dish has lamb in it and I like lamb so I’ll go with it.” Lacking ingredient similarity, an AP may act on similarity in aroma or appearance. An adult with a lot established programs may seldom fall back on a purely random choice.

In addition to secondary programs there are tertiary programs. Tertiary programs are programs established through directed learning experiences. These may be informal, such as being taught a language or languages in the home, that our family doesn’t eat pork, Americans support their country, men are leaders and women must pay attention to their appearance. Other informal learning experiences may have other social influences that are outside the family such as a peer group, community organizations and the media. You may acquire AP’s related to such things as music preferences, clothing preferences, religious beliefs, sexual attitudes, political ideals, occupational preferences and prejudices. Other directed learning experiences may be more formal like those found in educational programs to teach subjects like reading, writing, mathematics, history and physics.

[Note: If you would like a demonstration of the reality of these AP’s, click on “Implicit Attitude” and take some of the tests, especially those on social attitudes, and compare what you believe about the topics with what the tests reveal at the unconscious level.]

Many AP’s will usually be functional, efficient and of great benefit. Other AP’s may do no great harm. Some may be or may become highly dysfunctional and create a constant source of problems, the origins of which are difficult to identify. One simple example might be a woman who repeatedly makes poor choices in men because of dysfunctional AP’s that influence what she finds appealing in a man or, conversely, a man who finds problematic women appealing because of dysfunctional AP’s.

As you develop and acquire more and more AP’s, you begin to engage in a lot of thoughts, feelings and actions that arise from beneath CA. Conscious awareness creates explanations to explain the occurrence of these thoughts, feelings and actions. Over time the explanations are woven into narratives that explain who we are and why we think, feel and act in certain ways. This becomes an evolving self-description or what might be called a fictive-self. The fictive-self usually has several narrative variations, which draw on existing AP’s and new AP’s that may develop out of circumstances peculiar to a particular variation. There is usually a variation for each of the long-term roles that we acquire in the course of our lives, such as student, spouse, parent, employee, partner, friend and so on. Some of these variations may be more functional than others and especially dysfunctional when they are contradictory and in conflict.

Another important process in the creation and maintenance of our fictive-self is memory and imagination. When our “mind” is not externally focused on some attention-requiring task like composing this essay, it goes into narration mode. Memories associated with our narrative arise in CA. We ruminate on past accomplishments, pleasures, failures or misfortunes as a way of illustrating and reinforcing our story. If a memory doesn’t fit our story well, we will modify and tweak the memory to bring it into better alignment with our story. We also project these memories through imagination into hypothetical future scenarios, which is different from drawing on past experience in considering how we can accomplish a specific goal. That type of thinking is called planning and is not pointless rumination. Narration strengthens our story and our identification with it.

We become strongly identified with the fictive-self we weave. It becomes us and we go through our lives thinking that we are the story that we have created to explain the AP’s operating beneath CA that direct our thoughts, feelings and actions. The more strongly we are identified with our fictive-self, the less aware we are of our original self and the less self agency we exercise. In short, we have lost our natural mind and, in the process, the ability to see the world as it is rather than as it appears through the explanatory filters we have created to explain the effects of our AP’s. Literally, I AM my story and my story is ME, but a story is just that — a story. Many people arrive at such an understanding spontaneously. This epiphany about the fictive-self tends to be powerful, transformative and often viewed as a spiritual event. Such events are also sometimes referred to as noetic events.

Personally, I had such a noetic event when I was seventeen years of age that revealed to me that my concept of self was simply a matrix of beliefs in which I had invested my identity. This was a transformative experience for me, but one that took years to manifest its effects and be fully understood. A decade later, I had a second noetic event in which I realized that, not only do we have a personal matrix of beliefs that we identify with, but there is a larger more universal matrix in which our personal matrix is embedded and entangled. If you’re interested in these two noetic events in my life, they are covered in A Personal Odyssey.

Stories can be changed. The first step is to recognize that who you think you are and why you think, feel and act in particular ways is because you’re following a script that you’ve created. The more strongly you’re identified with your fictive-self the more difficult it will be to change your story. The techniques discussed in “Creative Self-agency” include methods for working on your AP’s and the story you have written about them. Self-agency is the tool that needs to be developed, if you want to improve your story and change the way you relate to the world. Self-agency requires that you recognize that you have a fictive-self that you created and that you can change it. The second step is to employ some of the techniques available to understand your story and then to effect functional changes in the story. Just knowing that you are articulated by a story and making that story more functional can make significant improvements in your life.

However, recognizing that you are identified with a story and making improvements to that story will not alone restore your natural mind. Restoring the natural mind requires that you stop identifying with the story that you’ve woven around your AP’s and relax back into the pure awareness of being. Being present with the natural mind will provide a fresh perspective on everything and you can respond to situations as if they were unique happenings, not instances of AP-driven events that make up part of the story that is your fictive self. Being in the natural mind will let life flow through you unimpeded by efforts to control and direct it to make it conform to your story.

Ending identification with your I, fictive-self, ego, personality or whatever term you want to use for the construct is not generally something that people find easy to do even once the idea becomes viable to them. There are many approaches to ending identification with the story and most of them involve extended programs of meditation. Meditation will give you greater access to material that has largely been beneath conscious awareness for most of your life. Coming to know and understand your AP’s will lead you to an intuitive understanding of the fictive nature of your ego or self. It is this direct understanding that begins to free you from identification with your story.

Many spiritual teachings speak of losing the self or getting rid of the ego or living totally in the present moment. All of these notions should be considered as metaphorical ways of saying that you should stop identifying with your story. You can’t get rid of your fictive-self because it serves useful purposes. But your phone, computer or car serve useful purposes and mentally healthy people don’t invest their identify in them. These and many other useful things in your life are just tools. Likewise, once you stop identifying with your story, your fictive-self simply becomes a cognitive tool that is used as needed and then put aside until needed again.

To illustrate what this might feel like, consider the following scenario. You were selected five years ago by your employer to go overseas to work in a subsidiary. Let’s say that you went to Germany. You lived in Germany for five years and became fluent in the language and came to understand the culture. Call this your German identity. At the end of five years, you return home to work in the corporate headquarters.

You now operate in a way consistent with your native culture and speak your native language. One evening you are having dinner in a restaurant and overhear some German tourists having difficulty with the menu and placing their order with the waiter. You get up go over to their table and in German ask them if you might be of assistance. They readily accept and you help them negotiate the items on the menu and place their order for them with the waiter. The Germans invite you to join them and you do so and put your German identity to work during the dinner. When this task is complete and the German identity is no longer needed, it is put to “bed” so to speak.

Think of your fictive-self as similar to this hypothetical German identity. When you can put it to “bed” and wake it up when circumstances require it, you will bring to an end almost if not all of the narration that has previously had a near continuous run in the theater of your mind. You can now live your life largely in the present moment, which is all that really exists. You will have a much fresher and unencumbered view of events and can respond to them on their own terms rather than in terms of the character in a play of your own authorship. Thus, you have recovered your natural mind.

Many spiritual traditions see the recovery of the natural mind as the first step in moving on to a transformation of consciousness and identification with what might be thought of as unity consciousness. For example it might have been the natural mind that Jesus was referring to in the following:

Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

 A translation of this into other terminology might read, “Frankly, unless you can regain your natural mind, you will be unable to know unity consciousness.” You can replace unity consciousness with whatever terminology works best for you. Examples might include Christ consciousness, consciousness of the divine, God, unified field of consciousness and so on.

Regaining the natural mind is significant in itself. However, for those so inclined, it can become a doorway. Passing through that doorway opens possibilities for several transformations of consciousness that end with unity consciousness, but that is beyond the scope of this essay (see Creative Self-Agency).

The Looking Glass

This piece was adapted from a post by Fred Davis

You are always awake, but you are not always consciously awake.

What matters is simple recognition [that is, of when you’re consciously awake], because however you display yourself to yourself, you’re almost surely going to have to come back to fresh conscious recognition over and over again. This is the discipline part. This is the process part. Awareness colonizes the body one bit, one seeing, one unconscious pattern at a time.

In every moment that you ally yourself with thinking, which includes every activity of the mind, you are voting for thinking. It’ll take some work to shift that default position. It’ll take a lot of willingness. Thinking isn’t a bad thing, it is just that most of us do too much of it when it isn’t necessary. When your car is stuck in mud, you need to think about how to free it but when someone cuts you off in traffic there is nothing to think about.

Again and again, as you touch truth through actual experience–as you discover truth through continuous inquiry–that touch will bring a longer, stronger, more profound experience of what you always already are–that which knows what you are. Your true essence is pure awareness of what is now, not what you think about it.

Be relentlessly aware of and skeptical about your thoughts. You won’t always have to take your thoughts through a process of formal inquiry. In the beginning inquiry is necessary to purge your mind of pointless chatter. Ask yourself again and again, “Is what I’m thinking really true, or is it a belief, an opinion, a judgment or even a delusion? Even if what you’re thinking is true, do you really need to be engaged in this line of thought right now? The veil of thought arises, it’s questioned, penetrated, and it parts. Repetition is the mother of clarity. Eventually, the inquiry becomes less formal and more spontaneous. Life itself becomes constant inquiry. Like everything else, you don’t have to do a thing. It just happens effortlessly.

You may tell yourself, “It can’t be that simple.” It is.

Liberation is all about right now, this moment.

Freedom is now or never, here or nowhere.

[Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” Mark 4:9]

A simple demonstration exercise follows below:

 

Exercise

This exercise based on a Buddhist meditation practice called rigpa (being aware of awareness).

Find a quiet relaxing spot where your visual awareness can be spacious. Examples of the type of setting that I have in mind might be sitting or standing on a peak gazing out across a beautiful wooded valley, sitting on a dock in the early evening gazing out across the waters of a quiet, undisturbed lake or whatever works for you. The essential feature is the relaxed mood the setting evokes, not the setting itself.

Now, just enjoy the feeling of relaxation that the scene evokes in your body, take in the spacious view before you, listen to the subtle sounds arising from the scene, feel the air move about your face and body, smell any odors carried by the air you breathe. Allow yourself to become fully immersed in the totality of the moment. When you are fully settled into the exercise you will be acutely aware but your awareness will be free of thoughts (i.e., words and images) but full of sensations and feelings — pure experience. Fully present.

This is you as an awake consciousness or in your natural mind. It is always available. It can be brought to any circumstance under any conditions. You merely need to learn to stay in this state of consciousness as your normal or habitual way of being. Practice the use of thinking as a tool for accomplishing a specific task and then put it away and become present with your immediate experience.

There is probably no end to the depths of this state of awakened awareness but you first have to learn to live in it before it can flower.

Brain Networks and Meditation

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 introspective observation 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” and 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 freedom.

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 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 mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness 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 beneath 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 mindfulness 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.

Figure

 

Two views of the brain with the RAN in blue and the FAN in orange and yellow.