This is the second of two articles that were written with the intention of providing an overview of the approach to meditation and self-enquiry, that I took in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. To access the previous article, please click here.
I believe that the true practice of meditation, such as was taught by the Buddha, must be rooted in his psychology of non-dual wisdom. Hence my characterisation of meditation as resting as Consciousness. I have used these words frequently, to point to a core idea that is easy to miss. I have tried to explain them several times, but will take the time here to outline this principle once again. In the terms of the Buddhist ‘Five Skandhas‘ self-enquiry framework, what I am referring to as Consciousness (i.e. capitalised), is the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha – the non-personal, non-locatable, and indeed Transcendental principle that is at the centre of mandala of the five skandhas.
A Deeper Conceptual Framework for Mindfulness Practice
While the adoption of this sort of approach at the outset, as our entry point into meditation practice, is unfortunately currently relatively unusual, it is by no means without precedent in Buddhist tradition. Indeed it is, in my view, the approach that is now being adopted by all the best meditation teachers around the world. The modern audience of spiritual students is sophisticated, and is exposed, via the internet, to high-level non-duality teachings that only fifty years ago, would only have been available to dedicated ‘seekers’ – usually through prolonged periods of meditation and study in the East. For example, the traditional Buddhist dzogchen and mahamudra teachings, which express this idea of resting as Consciousness, are now available on YouTube in most languages.
The spiritual practitioners of the modern West (and the westernised East), as it begins to face into the psychological implications of the way that Quantum Physics describes reality, are I believe, ready for these so called ‘advanced’ or ‘high-level’ teachings – perspectives on practice that were previously only available to the most experienced and the most committed. Indeed, the whole idea that these are ‘advanced’ ‘high-level’ teachings seems erroneous – since they are just more sophisticated of talking about Mindfulness practice. Non-duality is a confusing notion to grasp however. This is partly because non-duality runs so strongly counter to everything that we generally assume about the nature of ourselves and our world. But we should not expect Mindfulness, the practice that the Buddha called ‘the Way to the Immortal’ to be unchallenging to the basic assumptions of the egoic mind.
There is perhaps, a failure on the part of many meditation teachers to engage with, and to effectively explain, the huge practical benefits of a non-dual approach to human psychology. There is a tendency to put non-duality, and the Buddha’s challenging anattā (no-self) doctrine in the ‘too hard’ basket, and to make it irrelevant by thinking of it as a difficult-to-understand feature of the distant goal, rather than a foundation for meditation practice – a perspective to embraced at the earliest possible stage. The Buddha’s ‘Noble Eightfold Path’ is best conceived a path made up of two stages or processes – an initial process of Vision, followed by a longer process of Transformation. Hence, the first limb of the Noble Eightfold Path, Perfect Vision, is the process of Vision, and the remaining seven limbs constitute the process of Transformation. This framing of the Buddha’s model gives great importance to the attainment the clearest possible vision of the goal, as a precondition for our effective practice of the subsequent stages.
It is not surprising that Buddhist non-duality teachings have tended to find themselves in the ‘too hard’ basket. Ultimately non-duality cannot be completely ‘understood’ in the ordinary way by the thinking mind. We can ‘point’ to it with concepts and with symbols, but ultimately we need to seek the actual experience of it within ourselves in meditation or meditative enquiry. The mandala is particularly valuable as a guide for those engaged in such an experiential exploration of non-dual wisdom, because it shows the multiple dimensions of our meditative experiencing in a very systematic and comprehensive way, and gives a great many pointers to the ultimate nature of mind – several pointers from each of the four directions of the mandala.
Resting as Consciousness – a brief explanation
In my ‘Meditation Guidance’ articles, on this website, I have been using the notion of resting as Consciousness as a shorthand for an approach to meditation that can tentatively be termed a ‘non-dual’ approach, and once you have experienced resting as Consciousness you will recognise that this phrase is very descriptive. I hope you find the explanation that follows in the paragraphs below to be helpful elucidation of this illusive idea.
Firstly, it needs to be understood that the notion of ‘resting’, when we talk of ‘resting as Consciousness’, is an invitation to relax – to rest; to step back; to let go; and to just allow ourselves to experience Consciousness and everything that we are experiencing within Consciousness.
In this ‘resting’ approach to meditation there may be ‘pointers’ to help the beginner to ‘know what to be open to’, but there is nothing particular that we have to do, or be, by an effort of will. In Zen tradition, meditation is sometimes described as ‘just sitting’ or even as ‘doing nothing’. While the egoic mind assumes that the integration that we seek in meditation practice, can only achieved by the effort of an egoic will, I am proposing that we familiarise ourselves with an principle of receptivity that requires a much more subtle application of will. It is very important that we relax enough to let the harmonious energies of Consciousness take over from the inherently conflicted energies of the egoic will.
The invitation to notice ‘Consciousness’ is an invitation to recognise that which is normally overlooked – the illusive, non-locatable ‘I’ that is aware of experiences and aware of itself. I use the word ‘Consciousness’, with a capital ‘C’, to refer to this ’empty’, non-personal, experiencing field of knowing that we take to be a ‘self’. I use this capitalised form in order to highlight the fact that this source of knowing confounds our assumptions about its personal nature as soon as we investigate it though self enquiry. As I stated above, this is the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha that the Buddha spoke of, and which Mahayana Buddhism placed in the centre of the mandala.
The discovery that the apparent ‘self’ has no discernible location, centre, or boundary, is not as alarming or as dramatic as we might expect. We may have to go back to the enquiry many times before we start to fully register the enormous implications of this odd discovery. Even when we have recognised what Consciousness is not, and are starting to relax about not knowing what it is, and perhaps starting to sense that it is something that contains and pervades our experience like space, we will continue to move in and out of identification with our egoic parts, but it is wonderfully liberating to start to realise that none of these egoic parts is the previously assumed self – that all are ‘empty’ of self-nature, and ‘full’ of the energy of Consciousness.
When we start to release our erroneous conviction that the thoughts, feelings, intuitions and sensations, which are the cognitive-perceptual components (i.e. skandhas) of our psychological parts, together constitute a fixed and substantial ‘self’, we are on the road to psychological freedom. The approach to meditation that I advocate, aims to allow us to move beyond our identifications in a systematic way. The four brahmavihāras and the first four subtle bodies, together provide the framework we need to progressively embody Consciousness in meditation – and to discover an energetic reflection, in the internal space of the body, of the essential attitudes or qualities of Consciousness.
Once we recognise that Consciousness is not just a personal point of view within, we are free to experience Consciousness as a ‘field’ – as the shared multidimensional space in which all our experience is arising. But Consciousness is not just ‘out there’ like space, and not just ‘in here’ in a vague general sense as a disembodied knower of our experience – the space ‘out there’ is also ‘in here’ in a very particular embodied way, in the field of the body, as embodied Consciousness. This is why I find the brahmavihāras to be such a powerful description of Consciousness – the cosmic attitudes of Consciousness that are the brahmavihāras, are simultaneously embodied in us as an energetic reality in our bodily-felt experience, and as integral dimensions of the psychology of any happy, healthy human being.
Those that are familiar with the distinction, will notice that when I refer to the brahmavihāras as attitudes of the absolute reality of Consciousness, I am actually referring to the absolute brahmavihāras, or mahabrahmavihāras – the ‘great’ brahmavihāras, of which the relative brahmavihāras are a reflection in our human psychology. While this Mahayana Buddhist distinction between the relative and absolute levels is extremely important and helpful, in general, I do not make the distinction. Our experience in relative existence is always a reflection of the absolute level – meditation practice is implicitly about opening ourselves to the non-separateness of those two levels in our experience.
Resting ‘as’ Consciousness
Before talking about resting ‘as’ Consciousness, I would like to talk briefly about resting ‘in’ Consciousness. Although it is ultimately limiting, and does not quite fit our experience, it would be a huge step forward to think of meditation as resting ‘in’ Consciousness, and this is indeed, in my view, a very good way of initially approaching the self-inquiry and beginning to break our egoic identifications. The process of non-dual realisation seems to require that, before we can realise non-duality, we must first acknowledge and embrace the duality of the experienced internal relationship between the universal Consciousness and our various psychological parts and psychological fragments that make up our illusion of a personal self or soul. Initially at least, the relational attitude of receptivity towards the universal Consciousness is essential to the process of our deepening embodiment of it.
As we look within and explore the experience of being aware of being aware, we find that at first it does indeed seem that we can peer out, or ‘feel’ out in all directions into the universal field of Consciousness. This relational ‘looking out’ at the field of Consciousness from the point of view of the experiencing personal self or soul, has the profound and paradoxical effect of intensifying our sense that the universal Consciousness is not just some form of disembodied ultimate observer, but is embodied in us, inseparably present in each one of us. Indeed we are forced to acknowledge that Consciousness is, in this fundamental sense, equally present in all of us – absolutely evenly distributed throughout space.
This is why the notion of resting ‘as’ Consciousness, and the conceptualisation of meditation as a process of letting go of identification with the egoic patterning in the four surface bodies in order to reveal the underlying reality of embodied Consciousness, is so descriptive of our experience in meditation. Our experience of Mindfulness when we sit to meditate is always one of embodied Consciousness – and of sensing the presence of energies in the internal space of the body. And as we sit regularly, committing ourselves to familiarising ourselves with Consciousness, the internal energetic structure of the way in which we embody Consciousness becomes increasingly clear.
The Mandala – the Psychodynamics of Consciousness
For me, the essential structure of the maps and diagrams of the internal energetic structure of Consciousness that are provided by the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, are superbly accurate – they fit my internal experience very well indeed, and function as a very effective guide in meditative enquiry. I am thinking here of the mandala especially, but also of the stupa, which I will talk about below.
The Westerner can find the symbolism of the mandala and stupa somewhat overwhelming however. Both these symbolic arrangements are so heavily adorned with cultural elements that it is hard to see the archetypal structures themselves. While the cultural details and culture-bound personifications of Consciousness in the great variety of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, male and female, peaceful and wrathful, can be very illuminating, and definitely worth studying and connecting with, unfortunately it seems to help if we strip these complex multidimensional symbols down to their most essential and universal structural elements – and this is what I have tried to do.
I have talked in Part 1 of this ‘Overview’ series (here) about how I have found it necessary to clarify and simplify the structure of the mandala that we find in the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead) by using Jung’s Functions of Consciousness in place of the Skandhas, and by using the brahmavihāras in place of the Wisdoms. When we see the way that the egoic tendencies in Jung’s four Functions are clearly represented in the four main Realms that are represented in the Buddhist Wheel of Life, and the way in which these egoic tendencies find healing through Consciousness in the brahmavihāras, we already have almost all we need to gain access to the great storehouse of Tibetan Buddhist mandala wisdom.
The Stupa – the Hierarchy of Embodied Consciousness
The stupa is usually understood primarily as a Buddhist memorial monument, which in Buddhist tradition is often built over the grave site of, or to house the cremated remains or relics of a great spiritual teacher. In the course of the development of the tradition however, stupas came to take forms that were specifically intended to symbolise the components of the experience of embodied Consciousness that the great teachers had achieved.
I find the hierarchical arrangement that we see in both the physical and symbolic structure of the stupa to be a great support in our conceptualisation of the relationship of the personal to the universal in meditation. In the brief summary of the typical structural and symbolic elements of the Tibetan Buddhist stupa monuments that I have provided in the paragraph below, I have included the associated brahmavihāras in brackets. My aim is to reinforce the connection, and ultimately the inseparability of, on one side, the brahmavihāras as the cosmic attitudes of Consciousness, that I have been presenting primarily in the context of the mandala structure, and on the other side, the brahmavihāras as the dimensions of the embodiment of Consciousness in the subtle bodies, such as are highlighted by the hierarchical structure of the stupa.
The square base of a stupa symbolises the earth element and the embodiment of Consciousness in the Subtle Physical Body (i.e. Appreciative Joy); the spherical or rounded structure above that symbolises the element of water and our embodiment of Consciousness in the Mental Body (i.e. Equanimity); the conical structure above that symbolises the fire element and our embodiment of Consciousness in the Emotional Body (i.e. Loving Kindness); the dish shaped or up-turned crescent form above that symbolises the air element and our embodiment of Consciousness in the Volitional/Intuitional Body (i.e. Compassion); and the spire or flame-like feature on the top of the stupa symbolises the element of space, and Consciousness itself.Stupa_Bodies
One of my aims in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series has been to highlight this correspondence and inseparability between the hierarchical somatic structure of the subtle bodies and their corresponding chakras, and the purely psychological (which Carl Jung and others have distinguished from the somatic, by using the term psychic) but equally important archetypal principles, which are the brahmavihāra attitudes and their corresponding opposites among the Six Realms. Taken together, these two aspects of the brahmavihāras give us a wonderfully comprehensive conceptual understanding of the paradoxical way in which the psychic and somatic reflections of Consciousness manifest themselves in meditation as two sides of the same experience.
Individual Embodiment of a Universal Consciousness
In the ‘Meditation Guidance’ articles on the brahmavihāras, I have been acknowledging the hierarchy of the subtle bodies that we see in the stupa, but emphasising the all-important polarity dynamics within the surface bodies, that are highlighted by the vertical and horizontal pairs of opposites in the mandala structure.Brahma_Bodies
I believe it is important to give primacy to the way Consciousness is organised according to a mandala structure. The mandala structure gives emphasis to the need to cultivate balance and wholeness, and to heal our Shadow dynamics by always endeavouring to hold both poles of the polar oppositions simultaneously in Consciousness. The stupa highlights a very different inherent structure in the way Consciousness is organised – a hierarchical structure that corresponds to the universally experienced somatic structures of Consciousness in the subtle bodies that we experience within and around us.
A wonderful implication of the ancient Indian ‘seven bodies / seven chakras’ system is that the surface is contained within the deep, and the personal is contained within the universal. The non-dual wisdom with its focus on the universal Consciousness, and its recognition that the appearance of selves is an illusion, paradoxically does not devalue or dismiss the appearance of individual beings. On the contrary it deeply appreciates and celebrates the lives of all sentient beings by revealing and honouring each one as a manifestation of the universal Consciousness.
And the spiritual traditions give special appreciation and honour – as the Buddhists do with their stupas – to those who make the universal Consciousness the context for their lives, because these people eventually come to embody the ethical and compassionate qualities of the universal Consciousness in every energetic layer of their being – right down to the physical body.
Oneness is the Context for the Plurality of our Embodied Experience
When the whole hierarchy of the way Consciousness is embodied is experienced fully in meditation, we naturally move towards taking the universal as the basis of our identity, and the physical body, the breath, and the sense of ‘being a person’, are each experienced in the context of the universal. We come to see each of these personal experiences as a doorway to the universal – a doorway that seems to want to disappear as soon as we walk through it.
Non-dual wisdom becomes much more accessible, and is of much greater practical value, when we recognise that an experience of a separate self seems to remain even when the oneness of the field of Consciousness is recognised and embraced as the basis of our identity, and as the context for a lives. The more that we recognise the way that the unity of Consciousness completely pervades every experience however, the more the distinctively egoic nature of our perception, with its conviction of separateness, can fall away.
So ultimately, in a non-dual approach to meditation, we are invited to embrace the universal Consciousness in our process of embodiment of its qualities – to make ourselves profoundly receptive to it, by recognising it as who we already are in our most essential nature. The one, universal Consciousness, it would seem, is the context for the inevitable plurality of our experience as human beings.