This is Post 40 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series.
Consciousness is a phenomenon of the interface, the boundary, and the discontinuity, between the knowable world of Classical Physics, and the unknowable world of Quantum Mechanics. This interface pervades the universe as an infinite pure space that is an eternal present moment, and is equal and everywhere the same. It is also, at the same time, single – a unity. Mathematically it is a single point – a one point field.
The Classical world of matter is, quite literally, a beautiful illusion. Space and time are just relative phenomena, and matter is also just an appearance – an appearance on the surface of a universe that is mostly unknowable energy and information. Thankfully, the ephemeral perception that is our universe, is pervaded by the absolute reality of Consciousness. It is this animating power that makes it knowable, and makes it so beautiful. Without Consciousness, there would be no life, no meaning, no possibility of evolution, and no human self-conscious experience, with all its richness and relational complexity.
Consciousness and the present moment are inseparable phenomena. When we look out through the dense, ‘milky’ band of stars that is our own galaxy and glimpse the galaxies beyond, we are seeing the universe as it was many millions of years ago. The light by which we perceive some of those distant stars left them long before our own planet was even formed, and has been traversing the vast expanse of space for billions of years. It is a little disturbing to perceive that everything in the Classical world appears fundamentally disconnected and separated by time and space. In the simple human experience of Consciousness however, and in the experience of the present moment, the whole vast expanse is completely connected and unified – as Quantum Physics has also now shown us.
While these sorts of reflections may at first appear somewhat abstract, I hope to be able to show that they also have extremely practical implications. For those of us that aspire to express our deepest human potential – in ourselves, our relationships and our communities – there is enormous value in familiarising ourselves experientially with the more fundamental, non-dual level of reality in which we all rest, because it is such a rich source of psychological insights and personal transformation.
While this exploration of the Present Moment, Connectedness, and Consciousness, is associated with the intrapersonal path of meditation, it is also deeply relevant to our interpersonal lives. We need a high degree of familiarity with Presence, Connection and Consciousness if we are to communicate effectively in our relationships and communities. If we fail to acknowledge, and acknowledge deeply, the present moment of Consciousness in which we are already connected, we will be frustrated in our efforts to relate empathetically and collaborate effectively.
Living ‘in’ and ‘as’ the Life Energy of Consciousness
Knowing that the Classical world is just an appearance of subject-object perception, and that the Quantum world is unknowable, gives great importance to the mysterious boundary phenomenon that is Consciousness. Consciousness is the only thing that exists absolutely for us – that is reliable and ultimately trustworthy in our experience. Consciousness, to borrow a phase from the apostle Paul, is that in which we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), and resting as Consciousness, through the practice of meditation and mindfulness, is our surest path to authenticity, integrity, and to knowing whatever may actually be known.
Paul’s invitation to the Christians of Athens was perhaps not so very different in its essence, from the Buddha’s invitation to his students in ancient India, or the invitation of psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, whose Nonviolent Communication (NVC) model I have been starting to explore in the previous article in this series (here). All three may be seen as inviting people into the experience of the beneficial Life Energy of Consciousness. It is interesting to compare these three perspectives on the same experience. Paul takes a theistic religious view and attributes the experience of Consciousness to a personal creator god; Rosenberg takes a humanistic and phenomenological position and tries to resist all metaphysical speculation (but cannot help but acknowledge the Mystery in various ways); and Buddhism generally takes a ‘Middle Way’.
The Buddhist approach is also phenomenological and non-theistic like that of Rosenberg, but by addressing the nature of mind and Consciousness directly, allows us to more fully acknowledge the spiritual profundity of the human situation. Although Buddhism occasionally lapses into religious absolutes on the one hand, or a dry scientific materialist humanism (that denies the objective and collective reality of Consciousness) on the other, the Buddha, in his notion of the Middle Way, was clearly trying to express a way of seeing that, by avoiding these extremes, names the truth that facilitates our transcendence of them.
I find that in modern psychology the Middle Way is best articulated in the archetypal psychology perspective that we associate with Carl Jung, but the notion of the Middle Way can be understood in many ways – and I shall be exploring this theme further in future articles. For me the idea of finding and following a Middle Way is very much akin to the wisdom of the green Northern Quadrant, where we are invited to see that egoic volitions always arise as one pole in a polarity. In general, it is only by resting as Consciousness that we are able to bring about the full simultaneous recognition of all polarities that allows us to integrate of them – an experience perhaps, of the Middle Way.
‘Being In’ the Life Energy of Needs
In these articles on non-duality and the mandala wisdom, I have been aiming for this Middle Way. In this particular article however, I am making use of Marshall Rosenberg’s NVC model once again, because of its power to ground the mandala wisdom in everyday life. I would like to begin to highlight some of the ways in which the mandala wisdom of Buddhism is illuminated by the mandala wisdom of NVC. The relationship between the two models is also especially illuminating the other way round. By understanding the ‘higher’, or more fundamental archetypal pattern, which we see as non-dual reflections on the nature of mind, the ‘components’ of NVC, which are a reflection of these ultimate principles, can be seen with much more clarity and depth. NVC shares much with Buddhist philosophy. Both provide frameworks for psychological and ethical reflection on our thinking, speech, and actions, and both take Compassion, and the development of a comprehensive self-awareness, as their highest values.
The diagram above is a version of what I have come to call the NVC mandala. While the four components of the NVC model (Observation, Feelings, Needs and Requests) are not usually arranged in this way, I hope students of both the Buddhist mandala wisdom and NVC, will find the correspondences between the two models useful. The second mandala diagram in this section (below) shows the correspondences between the four brahmavihāras and the four ‘components’ of NVC. Of the four correspondences shown in this diagram it is the correspondence between Needs and Compassion that I would like to focus on in this article. I shall be returning to the others in future articles.
Within the non-dual psychology of Mahayana Buddhism, the mandala quadrants are associated with four spiritual choices – choices between four dimensions of our habitual unconsciousness and egoic identification, on one side, and four options for approaching the experience of resting as Consciousness, on the other. The NVC mandala is actually offering us exactly the same four choices framed in a slightly different way, and with a focus on our communication. In essence, the choice is always between egoic identification and resting as Consciousness – with four forms of unconsciousness, and four dimensions of psychological freedom.
Returning to our Compassionate True Nature
In the current series of articles within the larger ‘Meditation Guidance’ series, we have been addressing the green Northern Quadrant of the mandala, which, in the mandala of the brahmavihāras, is associated with Compassion, and in the NVC mandala, is associated with Needs. The intuitive, energetic, and volitional perspective on the psychology of relationship and communication, that is expressed in terms of Needs in the NVC model, gives us powerful insights into that attitude and state of being, which the Buddhist tradition calls karunā, or Compassion.
In my recent articles, I have been emphasising the fact that not just Compassion, but all four brahmavihāras, and most of the other fundamental psychological principles that we have been exploring in this whole series of articles, have an energetic dimension, and can be recognised in meditation as Life Energies. Our engagement with these Life Energies as Needs, and with our Needs as Life Energies, can be profoundly supportive if we wish to embody Consciousness at the Volitional Body level, and return to our compassionate true nature.
Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) model takes us deep into this territory of the bodily-felt and intuitively known Life Energy of Needs – into what may be called the somatic dimension of experience. The NVC model would see all four of the four brahmavihāras (Equanimity, Appreciative Joy, Loving Kindness, and Compassion) as Needs. Indeed these are four of the most fundamental Universal Human Needs. If we can learn to fully embody these Life Energies, we will also begin to become highly effective communicators, and will start to express our highest human potential.
The Universal Human Needs
Needs, though they at first seem so subjective and indefinable, are truly the universals in human psychology. While Feelings are subjective, infinitely variable, and rich with cultural associations and cultural limitations, Needs are relatively few and clearly recognisable in every language. Marshall Rosenberg came to see the educational work of teaching NVC, as teaching a form of Needs-literacy, or Needs-awareness, as a basis for self-empathetic internal connection, and empathy in interpersonal interactions. In essence, he has saying that it is through self-empathetic and empathetic Needs-awareness that we cultivate Compassion.
The Universal Human Needs deserve deep attention if we are at all interested in becoming more conscious and more integrated, and I shall be returning to them. It takes practice to accurately bare witness to the Life Energy of Needs. Our habits of language are such that many words that name Needs, can also be used to name Feelings, and we need to be keenly aware of this distinction if we are to avoid confusion. Also, many Need words can be difficult to use in a neutral and impersonal way in communication – they can tend to imply judgement and lack. Need words are however extremely powerful, if we can find ways of using them that allow us to find and express a sense of internal connectedness in the present moment, and a sense of complete personal responsibility for our emotional experience. Below is a (fairly short) list of some of the key Needs.
In this article I would like to draw special attention to two Needs that Marshall Rosenberg singled out as especially significant and foundational in life – and which he identified as preconditions for the practice of NVC. These are the Need for “attention in the present”, or Presence; and the Need for “the intention to Connect”, or Connection. The difficulty most people have in finding and establishing these foundational principles in their experience, accounts for much of the difficulty that people have when they start to experiment with NVC. These two Needs, Presence and Connection, are also foundational for our practice of meditation, so it is extremely useful for us to explore them in self-enquiry – recognising them as aspects of Consciousness, and ‘being in’ them in our meditation practice, so that we come to embody them deeply.
A Non-Dual Approach to Presence
I am hoping that these two Needs, or Life Energies, of Presence and Connection, will also serve as a starting point for a deeper exploration of the approach that I introduced in the last article – the approach of meditatively ‘being in’ the Life Energies of the Needs, in order to facilitate integration of those energies.
This approach is very difficult to talk about because it is an application of a non-dual psychology that is the reverse of the conventional psychology of the Egoic Will. In regard to meditation practice, the conventional subject-object approach assumes, for example, that the purpose of meditation is to move from a state in which Presence is lacking, to a state of greater Presence, via an effort of the Egoic Will, using, for example, a conventional concentration exercise like noticing the sensations of the in-breath and out-breath at the tip of the nose.
The non-dual approach to meditation invites us instead to recognise Consciousness; to rest as Consciousness; and to recognise that the Life Energy of Presence is already present in our experience as an aspect of Consciousness. In fact, when we rest as Consciousness, we recognise that the Life Energy of Presence is not only already present in our experience, but already working within us to create Presence. The quickest way to cultivate Presence therefore, is to notice, and to receptively acknowledge, the Life Energy of Presence that is inherent in Consciousness.
This approach invites us to recognise that the Need for Presence is not merely the personal desire of an egoic part that wants to engage in a battle of wills with any psychological part that wants something else. Rather we are being invited to see that the Need for Presence is a fundamental and transpersonal impulse at the very core of who we are are. More than that, we are invited to be open to the possibility that all Needs can be met – that they are not mutually exclusive, and that we do not have to sacrifice, or deny, any of our Needs, in order to meet our Need for Presence. On the contrary, we find that by allowing the Life Energy of Presence, many other wishes become possibilities, and many other possibilities become fulfilled.
There is an enormous and very surprising transformative power in stepping out of our dualistic assumptions and living according to this non-dual perspective. When we rest as Consciousness and recognise that the Life Energy of Presence is an aspect of Consciousness, we are brought almost immediately into a state to Presence. Similarly, when we rest as Consciousness and recognise that the Life Energy of Connection is an aspect of Consciousness, we are brought almost immediately into a state to Connection. More than this, as we rest as Consciousness, we notice that Presence and Connection arise naturally together in our experience as two reciprocal and seemly inseparable aspects of our experience of embodied Consciousness.
Presence – A Foundational Need in Conscious Communication and Meditation Practice
Presence is fundamental, because the desire for Presence, or to be present, or to maintain attention in the present moment, is actually the desire of Consciousness to find embodiment. There is something in us that naturally loves and desires to be embodied and present, and that something is Consciousness itself – which is both a transpersonal force, and that which we are in our innermost essence.
Presence is closely related to the notion of samadhi in Indian tradition, which I prefer to translate as somatic integration – that cohesive energetic state in which we embody Consciousness harmoniously and congruously in the fields of the body. Indeed Presence is synonymous with embodied Consciousness. It is this energetic integration that allows us to develop a capacity for attention in the present on the neurological level. This is a fundamental understanding for the meditator: somatic integration is achieved by the unifying and integrative power of the present moment of Consciousness. Resting as Consciousness leads to Presence; Presence leads to somatic integration; and somatic integration leads to beneficial neurological changes. I have spoken about this frequently in previous posts in this series (here, here, here and here).
Undeniably, the maintenance of attention is reflected in brain function – but that brain functioning is made possible by our embodiment of Consciousness. If we develop a higher degree of embodiment of Consciousness, or Presence, we are able to sustain higher levels of focused attention. It is a common mistake in the way meditation is taught, to assume that the connection is the other way round. We are led to believe, erroneously in my view, that the repeated attempt to sustain focussed attention in meditation by an effort of the Egoic Will, will inevitably lead, out of necessity, to higher levels of psychological integration and Presence.
The Inherent Dysfunction of the Egoic Will
While some people will experience some success on this basis, this approach is ultimately based on a scientific materialist fantasy that entirely fails to acknowledge either the beneficial nature of Consciousness, or the inherent limitations of the Egoic Will. The approach of the Egoic Will, will always, paradoxically, even when its aim is psychological integration, tend to create conflict and disintegration – a pattern of internal psychological organisation in which one psychological part is judging, dominating, or suppressing another. Sacrificial repression of one Life Energy for the sake of another always creates internal conflict – and internal conflict always leads to external conflict.
If we are identified with spiritual ideas and spiritual groups, we may have psychological parts that value Presence – and have a wish to cultivate states of Mindfulness, Concentration, Equanimity, Loving Kindness, etc. But that identification with an aspirational part of ourselves is no guarantee of spiritual progress. If our approach is essentially dualistic, we will almost inevitably find ourselves in frustrating states of internal conflict. The will of our psychological parts cannot create psychological integration – only Consciousness can do that. To step out of identification with psychological parts, we need to rest as Consciousness.
Although, our psychological parts may be determined, disciplined, resourceful, relentless in their effort, and even desperate, ultimately the Egoic Will only knows separation – which means dissociation and conflict. It is very important to fully acknowledge this inherent dysfunction of the Egoic Will, or we can spend years convincing ourselves that it is some sort of heroic force for good in the psyche – or even that it is the only force for good in the psyche. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Egoic Will as the Asura Archetype
The Egoic Will is always spiritually ignorant, and far from being the inherently good, noble, integrating hero of the psyche, it has a natural affinity with fear, division and violence. This was the great genius of the Buddha’s imagery of the Asura Realm, where the Egoic Will is depicted in a deliberately extreme way – in its full delusional, personality-disordered depravity. By showing us the Egoic Will as the Asura archetype – as an archetype of the collective unconscious – the Buddha is showing us that it is not just a few bad people who are envious, manipulative, heartless, violent, and insanely selfish. He is pointing out that these traits are universal – inherent in ordinary egoic consciousness. The Buddha’s teaching is very clear, that ultimately the only alternative to the collective insanity of the Egoic Will, is to rest as Consciousness and become familiar with our true Compassionate nature.
I have spoken about the psychology of the Asura Realm in a previous article (here), which I strongly recommend to the reader, if you have not read it yet. These archetypal psychological principles are of enormous importance, because the collective psychology of Asura culture has profoundly negative consequences for all of our lives, and has profoundly shaped human history for the worse. Indeed it has been the cause of unspeakable horrors and untold misery. The collective implications on a societal, political, and global level, of our lack of understanding of this archetype, are too huge to be addressed here, but I shall be returning to them in future articles.
The mandala wisdom is telling us that this vast suffering will continue until the archetypal roots of it in our worship of the Egoic Will, are recognised. Indeed the mandala wisdom is telling us that the way in which we personalise and appropriate the volitional Life Energies to the Egoic Will, rather than recognising them as the collective and beneficial forces that they are, is the very opposite of Compassion, and is at the root of all violence.
Presence, Connection, and Non-Duality
Presence and Connection are paired in Marshall Rosenberg’s NVC model, and as I have mentioned earlier, it is useful to see them as a pair in regard to meditation and self-empathetic innerwork. This pairing of Presence and Connection takes us to the heart of one of the paradoxes of non-dual psychology – that Consciousness is both single and profoundly relational. As we become more psychologically integrated and present, through resting as Consciousness, we gain a deep sense of connectedness with our fellow man, and far greater capacity for genuine relationship – and we open ourselves to the fulfilment that this brings.
I have previously spoken of this paradox by referring to Consciousness as a relational unity. I find this to be a helpful way of framing the paradox. It is important to understand that the non-dual state, far from being a state of singular isolation, is rather, a place from which it is at last possible to be with everybody – to be unconditional in our relationships, to live in a state of unconditional connection with everything that we are, and in unconditional connection with all that is. As we start to release our identifications with the each of the component parts of the illusory separate self, and come to recognise that the transpersonal field of Consciousness is actually the source of our sense of self, our natural responses to life are transformed – becoming ethical, relational and creative.
The Brahmavihāras – Life Energies of Equanimity, Appreciation, Loving Kindness, and Compassion
While there are others (I shall be describing the ‘Five Wisdoms’ in my next article in this series), I find that the best description of the objective and collective field of Consciousness is provided by the ancient Indian brahmavihāras or ‘attitudes’ of Consciousness (Equanimity, Appreciative Joy, Loving Kindness, and Compassion). I, like the Buddha, find this formulation to be the perfect framework for a balanced approach to meditation practice. These ethical and relational attitudes are also an enormously powerful support in the practice of Marshall Rosenberg’s NVC model for communication and self-awareness.
While we can regard the brahmavihāras as a higher order manifestation of the archetype than the NVC mandala, there is great value for students of both models in making the connections between the two levels. The mandala of the brahmavihāras provides precious insight into the NVC mandala precisely because NVC challenges us to rise above the egoic level – to higher levels of Presence and Connection that also require us to become experientially familiar with the attitudes of Consciousness itself. The NVC mandala – the mandala of the four ‘components’ of NVC – on the other hand, brings the seemingly abstract and esoteric psychology of the Buddhist non-duality teachings into a practical engagement with the communication and self-awareness challenges of everyday life.
‘Being In’ the Brahmavihāras
Just as the NVC model regards Presence and Connection as foundational, higher order Needs, which make conscious communication possible; so too can the brahmavihāras be regarded as the foundational, higher order Needs, which allow us to rest as Consciousness, which support our integration, and which make all manner of things possible. Additionally however, it needs to be acknowledged that Presence and Connection are inseparable from the brahmavihāras. Equanimity, Appreciative Joy, Loving Kindness, and Compassion are all aspects of Presence and dimensions of Connection. And when we are truly present and connected, we are always also equanimous, appreciative, loving, and compassionate.
I strongly recommend that readers who are unfamiliar with the brahmavihāras, experiment with meditatively ‘being in’ these Life Energies, giving a minute or more to each one. Just rest as Consciousness, and simply name each Need in turn (Equanimity – Appreciation – Loving Kindness – Compassion), and rest ‘as’ each one of these energies. For more detailed guidance you may want to read some of my previous articles (here, here, and here). By meditatively noticing the energetic signature of each of these archetypal principles in the field of the body, we naturally cultivate states of Presence and Connection, which are also states of somatic integration, or samadhi to use the traditional Indian term. When we rest as Consciousness in meditation, and experience a degree of samadhi, there is always a very natural sense of being both one and at-one. There is both Presence and Connection – we are both present and connected.