This is Post 4 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series.
The unity of Consciousness and that which arises in Consciousness, is often spoken of in terms of non-duality or oneness, but what we actually experience in the self-inquiry experience, might better be characterised as a relational unity. Each of the great spiritual teachers have found different ways of pointing to this fundamental unity or oneness. When Jesus said “I and the Father are One” he was expressing this truth in the context of Jewish tradition. Similarly, the Buddha challenged us to notice that the conventionally assumed atman or soul in Hindu tradition cannot be located, and is actually ‘empty’ of self-nature. Now Quantum Physics is pointing to the same fundamentally unitary reality in which everything arises.
There is great practical psychological value for each one of us in trying to find our own experiential way into the actual perceptual reality behind these confusing and challenging ideas. For me, the core idea experientially behind these teachings, is that we are invited to acknowledge Consciousness – that which is generally overlooked in the perceptual process – and are invited to notice the ethical and relational qualities that are inherent in Consciousness, and to recognise that our assumed state of absolute separateness is a superficial phenomena – one that is denied, or at least relativised, by our more fundamental unity and connectedness on the level of Consciousness.
Plato’s Cave – an Allegorical Description of Consciousness
The unconscious and habitual tendency, which characterises ordinary egoic awareness, is such that we fail to acknowledge Consciousness. All our senses are directed almost exclusively towards objects. In regard to our sense of sight for example, we look ‘forward’ – with our attention solely on the object of our awareness – and do not acknowledge the Consciousness that is ‘seeing’. When we look forward in this way (without reference to what is looking) our perception is always limited and – paradoxically – can accurately be described as ’subjective’.
It is only when we allow ourselves to draw back and include Consciousness in our experiencing, that we become capable of perceiving reality as it is – that is, objectively. This way of experiencing, where we draw our attention back into the observing Consciousness, so as to include, or even give primacy to, the observing Consciousness in the perceptual relationship, is what the Buddhist tradition has come to refer to as Mindfulness.
Students of Philosophy may recognise that this inner movement backwards towards the light of Consciousness parallels the allegorical language of Plato’s Cave. In Plato’s Republic, he describes his mentor Socrates asking one of his students to imagine a cave where prisoners are chained so that they can only see the shadows cast by firelight on the back wall of the cave, and are never able to see the light of day.
Mindfulness is the Way to the Immortal
The Plato’s Cave allegory is a complex one, but the essential idea it expresses, is that the human situation is like the state of these prisoners, who are unaware of the source of the firelight, just as we are unaware of the source of our Consciousness. The allegory reminds us that we cannot become more conscious, or more mindful, simply by bringing an even greater intensity of ordinary egoic attention to the objects of our perception. A different way of experiencing is required. The Buddha was expressing a deep and powerful truth when he stated that “Mindfulness is the way to the Immortal”. Unfortunately, however the practice is generally not well understood. I shall be talking more about Mindfulness in future posts.
Once again the backwards rather than the forwards direction in Plato’s allegory is only a pointer – a symbol for us to meditate on and explore in our own experience, and an invitation to draw our attention back into the source of Consciousness, so that we can see complete and objective realities rather than mere shadows. Socrates and Plato were also inviting us to become aware that it is not just Consciousness, but also its associated ethical and relational qualities that are habitually excluded from our perception.
Drawing our Attention Back into Consciousness
In the actual experience of meditation and self-enquiry, Consciousness is usually experienced as a field – a boundless field that pervades the universe equally and evenly. So the invitation to direct of our attention towards the light of Consciousness, can also be understood as an invitation to allow our attention to expand outwards, in all directions, into the field of Consciousness. The idea of drawing our attention back is an important pointer however. It reminds us to notice that, ultimately, we are that mysterious field of Consciousness – that observing Consciousness that cannot be located.
When we exercise this freedom to direct not just our attention, but our identification, the initial effect may be undramatic. It may seem to change nothing in the content of our experience, but if we can learn to sustain this shift from our ordinary egoic identification to a identification with Consciousness, it changes everything. To be able to recognise Consciousness as ourselves, and know its qualities, even just for short moments, is the ultimate freedom.
The greater our receptivity in meditation, as we allow ourselves to expand into the imperturbable, equanimous quality of the field of Consciousness, the quieter the Thinking function of the mind becomes. And the quieter the Thinking function of the mind becomes, the deeper is our experience of Being. Also, as we practice this regularly, we begin to break our habitual identification with our thoughts, recognising that they are only points of view – and recognising that they are points of view that inherently lack objectivity. In fact, it is precisely through our recognition that thoughts can only be points of view, and inherently lack objectivity, that we gain the capacity to develop objectivity.
In future posts I would like to talk more about the nature of the self, and to further address the Buddha’s confusing anatta doctrine, which is often understood to mean ‘no-self’. Suffice to say at this stage, that there is no loss of self as we learn to rest as Consciousness, at least not in the negative sense. Rather, we have a sense of discovering the only authentic and stable basis for a fully relational and ethical self.
For summaries of the other articles in this ‘Meditation Guidance’ series click here.