Science & Contemplation

Francisco Varela (of blessed memory) looked forward to the day when scientists trained in the techniques of contemplation, together with contemplatives schooled in the vocabulary and methods of modern science, could jointly contribute to our understanding of the relation between the experiences of individuals and the activities of the nervous system. His vision has yet to be realized because cognitive and neurological scientists have not yet found a way to convincingly integrate the qualitative particulars of subjectivity and the physiological, quantitative data of Science-with-an-upper-case-“s.” Nevertheless, Varela’s vision remains sufficiently attractive that nowadays, some fifteen years after his untimely demise, there are more scientists who meditate and more science-literate contemplatives than ever before.

The heart of the matter seems to be that, however many times we hook up adepts to electronic devices, nothing much is added to our grasp of experience as such, much less to our understanding of how electrochemical phenomena become consciously lived lives. The prevailing ideas about the nature of subjectivity preclude our bringing experience under the aegis of a rigorous, third-person discipline. Despite the widespread rejection of Cartesian dualism, and the heroic efforts of such philosophers as the Churchlands and Daniel C. Dennett to clear a pathway, the Hard Problem of Consciousness[1] remains with us. At the same time, the community of meditators is gradually becoming more receptive to the both the approaches and the findings of psychology and neuroscience.

Not long ago the author of a Facebook page and website asked an interesting if somewhat ambiguous question:

“Does the science behind meditation impact your practice?”

A more felicitous way of putting the question might be “Is the way you think about the practice of meditation influenced by the findings of science?” For it appears unlikely that neurological theory will greatly change our application of the methods by which we undertake the systematic exploration of experience by introspection, except, perhaps, insofar as techniques may be marginally refined by advances in biofeedback. On the other hand, our ideas about the function and meaning of meditation, formerly derived exclusively from religious tradition, are bound to be transformed by scientific theory. That is not good news to everyone but it is, on the whole, a good thing.

The relevance of science to the art of contemplation is multi-dimensional, extending well beyond the study of meditators’ brainwaves and that sort of thing. The cognitive sciences, neurology, social anthropology, and the philosophy of mind contribute to our sense of what meditation is both physiologically and as a component of culture. It could be argued that the biological sciences have made the most significant addition to our knowledge of contemplation by uncovering the evolutionary roots of consciousness. Sensation, perception, and memory are biological processes that are thoroughly integrated with the environment. To accept that fact is to sever—or, one might say, liberate—self-awareness from any and all speculations about the nature of Ultimate Reality. What a relief!

It is helpful to bear in mind that Science is not an abstraction but a work-in-progress that has been tweaked and redefined many times over the past four centuries. It is, among other thing, a method intended to produce the kind of knowledge that all reasonable people can agree upon, at least provisionally. It is rigorously empirical, nested in safeguards against self-serving and falsehood, evolving, and always incomplete. Compare that description with contemplative practice in its traditional garb, which promises every sort of treasure from the mundane to the cosmic. Meditation is a class of activities and it is also a technology, by which I mean a body of institutional memory (instructions, received wisdom, and exhortations) that tells us not just how we might perform the exercises, but also why, what we can expect, and what it all means in terms of ultimate concerns. All such considerations—the conceptual background—contribute to our personal interpretation of our experiences. In the “non-dual” moment there may be no question of looking elsewhere for something more—or less! That is as it should be. And yet, sometimes we have to talk about meditation, too.

Mad scientist

All sorts of things underlie or stand behind meditation, supposing “behind” to refer to causes and conditions: motives, for instance, instructions, fortuitous events, assiduous practice; physiological processes, biological relations, physiochemical events that encompass the life of the universe. Why would we want to exclude knowledge of such things? They are elements of ourselves. Here we come up against hostility to a kind of scientific discourse wherein the arising of one phenomenon is explained in terms of the functioning and structure of another, what some people like to call, with ill-concealed disdain, “reductionism.” We are free to dislike such explanations, but not to deny their bearing on the activities in which we are engaged.

We all know that there would be no benefit in mulling all this while we are meditating, but it is very useful stuff when we are thinking about meditation. Thinking has an undeservedly bad reputation in certain circles, and yet it is indispensable, and not only to teachers, who are charged with providing instruction that is optimally useful. Students are much better off with a framework of clear ideas to guide them on the path. To the extent that science has the potential to disabuse us of unhelpful superstitions, and to prevent us from talking all sorts of nonsense about our contemplative experiences, it is useful even to adepts. We need not fear that to pay attention to science will somehow spoil our practice, as if it were the loss of spiritual virginity. Just check it out, and think about it. It will make you a more discerning meditator.

[1] This notorious theoretical cul-de-sac, a staple of philosophy since ancient times, has enjoyed a revival since the 1990s, when once again it became possible—that is, respectable—for scientists to mention Consciousness as a possible subject of inquiry for the first time since it was banished by the Behaviorists in the early 20th century. The connection the Hard Problem to “meditation” will be examined from various angles in future posts.

The Science & Technology of Liberation Classified

Before a person can decide what kind of meditation is best for her, she must have at least a rough idea of what kinds of meditation there are and how they differ from one another. Such knowledge is not easy to acquire, given the semi-secret nature of many contemplative lineages, the unfamiliar cultural matrix in which teachings on meditation are often imbedded, and the lack of adequate terminology for talking about mental states and processes. On top of that, personal accounts of the varieties of contemplative experience are notoriously idiosyncratic.

 

How, then, can we get our bearings in this strange land? Let us begin by looking at how one religious tradition, Buddhism, classifies the many contemplative exercises that are gathered under its capacious roof. My personal engagement with Buddhist theory and practice, over a span of forty years, allows me to say with some confidence that I am minimally qualified to talk about the matter. Yet the cultural edifice of Buddhism, built up over more than 2500 years, is so vast that no one can claim to be well acquainted with its every part. That in itself is a reason to exercise caution in the development of a method for discerning and describing the elements common to the various kinds, and the family groups to which they belong. As always in the case of taxonomically challenging fields of knowledge, the art lies in being just abstract and general enough to take the measure the whole, without diminishing any of the parts.

 

I will briefly describe a few of the ways in which Buddhists have classified the methods of mental development.

 

It is crucial to be aware from the outset that all types of Buddhist meditation, whatever their immediate result may be, are subordinate to the goal of attaining release from the discomfort of human existence. There are several ways in which the project of setting oneself free can be described, and we will review them in future entries. In whatever terms we choose to delineate the path, it culminates in a special kind of understanding about the nature of the arising of discomfort. The systematic contemplation of bodily sensations, hedonic tone, dispositions, and cognitive patterns is crucial to the arising of liberating wisdom. The exact details of the process will be discussed as we proceed. For now it is enough to note that the prime requisites of wisdom are tranquility and the insight which comes with a fully developed ability to apply mindfulness and comprehensive awareness. Here we meet with the first classification, namely, the division of methods into those that produce (or are primarily orientated to) calming, and those that produce insight.

 

As we consider the two types of meditation, i. e., calm-producing and insight-producing, bear in mind that while either of the two goals can be pursued separately, tranquility and insight are mutually supportive. Both deep understanding and unshakable calm are worth striving for in themselves. The goal of our practice is to become free from the domination of the three poisons—desire, aversion and delusion—and from attachment to “I, me and mine,” and insight is crucial for the realization of that freedom. However, the attainment of insight is extremely difficult for a person whose mind is chronically agitated.

 

Within each of these two fundamental categories, tradition recognizes a number of important distinctions and subtypes. The locus classicus for the enumeration of contemplative methods is a work by the fifth-century CE Sinhalese monk, Buddhaghosa. His Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification) is a compendium of practical advice gleaned from what some scholars believe to be the earliest stratum of Buddhist scriptures. It is a work of astonishing brilliance, and it is rightly regarded as the crown jewel of the Theravada commentarial tradition. Composed a thousand years into the Buddha’s dispensation, it is still an excellent source of basic information.

Buddhaghosa

Under the heading of tranquility-producing exercises, the Visuddhimagga lists 40 objects of contemplation. I will briefly list them below, with explanatory remarks where necessary. Note well that although they are given under the rubric of Calming, some of these exercises may also give rise to insight for those who undertake them in earnest and with and open and enquiring mind.

 

The first group is made up of ten wholes, or complete things (Pali kasina)—what a present-day psychologist might call gestalten. These are simple, concrete objects, clearly distinguishable from the background and used as the basis for visualization. They are (1) Earth, usually a clay-colored disc; (2) water in a small bowl; (3) fire, the flame of a candle or oil lamp; (4) air or wind, the smoke rising from incense or the movement of clouds, banners, leaves, etc. (5) blue or green, (6) yellow, (7) red, (8) white, all colored discs; (9) enclosed space, a container of any kind; (10) bright light, such as full sunlight upon a wall. The task here is to look at the thing for a while, then close the eyes and attempt to create a mental image of that thing. In the course of gradually refining and strengthening the vividness of the eidetic image or imaginative construct, the mind settles down, thoughts gradually become weaker, and the trainee enters the higher reaches of contemplative absorption (jhāna). A good example of the kasina in Japanese esoteric Buddhism is the contemplation of the lunar disc and A-syllable letter, known to students of mikkyo as gachirin-kan and aji-kan.

ajikan

Ten repulsive objects are listed as follows: (1) a bloated corpse; (2) a discolored corpse; (3) a festering or oozing corpse; (4) a corpse with cracked flesh; (5) a corpse that has been gnawed by animals; (6) a corpse that had been dismembered; (7) a corpse that has been hacked to pieces and its parts scattered about; (8) a bleeding corpse; (9) a corpse that is full of maggots; (10) a skeleton.

 

The ten recollections are divided into three groups. The first is recollection of the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The second group comprises recalling the virtues of moral self-restraint and generosity, and contemplating rebirth in the realm of the gods as an incentive to practice in this life. The third group is mindful recollection of the body, of death, of breathing in and out, and of ultimate peace.

 

Cultivation of the four so-called Abodes of Brahman, i. e., the positive social emotions, constitutes the next group. The Illimitables, as they are also called, are friendliness or loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

 

The four formless states—infinite space, infinite consciousness, infinite nothingness, and neither-perception-nor-non-perception—are not so much objects of contemplation as altered states that occur when the trainee’s concentration or absorption intensifies so much that the nominal object dissolves and is forgotten, leaving only a residuum of mental/neural activity.

 

The perception of food as disgusting is achieved by a method that is a variant of Setting up Mindfullness (or recollection), the Buddha’s core teaching on meditation, which we will examine in the next section. It entails closely attending to the process of eating—lifting and lowering the hand, opening and closing the mouth, moving the tongue, chewing, swallowing—without interruption for the whole of the meal, every meal of every day until your teacher tells you to stop. I was given this exercise as part of my basic training in the forest tradition and I can promise you that if you practice it diligently for a month you will come to feel that eating is more trouble than it’s worth. Still later you will pass beyond that feeling to a state of neutrality with regard to nourishment.

 

The last of the forty topics is the analysis of the human organism as it exemplifies the first four of the Great Elements, earth, water, fire and wind. This exercise not only increases calm through concentration but also promotes detachment with respect to one’s own body and the bodies of others by drawing attention to the body’s compound and therefore impermanent nature, as well as its repulsive aspects.

 

So much for the 40 objects of contemplation. The list is handy for reference but tells us almost nothing about how the various objects are used, beyond the belief that the systematic contemplation of any one of them is more likely to yield tranquility than insight.

 

There is another traditional way to view the field of personal training as a whole. The path of practice has long been divided into three parts, that is, moral development, mental-emotional development and intellectual development, also known as the Three Modes of Training in Conduct, Samādhi and Wisdom. The first is concerned with the discipline of bodily activity, the second with discipline of the will and moods, and the third with discipline of viewpoint and understanding.

Three Cheers for Consciousness, Whatever It Is!

In any discussion of the contemplative arts, there is no term more problematical and no topic of conversation more likely to turn rancid than that of “consciousness.” In the following paragraphs I will list a few of the reasons why and ask some of the questions that arose for me in the course of pondering it.

  • The word, “consciousness” is the satchel used to carry a bundle of ideas that have been thrown together without regard for their coherence. Lately I am inclined to think of it as a joke Christmas present consisting of a large, beautifully-decorated box filled with enormous amounts of tissue paper and nothing else. The understanding of consciousness emerges as we unwrap layer upon layer of language and concepts. Most of our ideas about mind, self, and awareness belong to the realm of everyday discourse, acquired from childhood onward in a process that can only be guessed at, while a relatively small number are the result of reflection and study. These conceptual schemata, memes, and ingrained forms of linguistic usage constitute our views. When it comes time to converse we cannot be sure that even our strongest hunches lie altogether beyond their insalubrious influence.
  • The language of conscious and mind is notoriously multivalent and imprecise. “Consciousness” is the semantic equivalent of the astronomer’s black hole. It sucks into itself any meaning that strays too near. Thus we have a single word, “consciousness,” used to denote a range of phenomena that includes (1) various physiological and “mental” functions, (2) the totality of experience, (3) wakefulness as opposed to sleep or coma, (4) sensory awareness, (5) subjectivity, and (6) [certain kinds of] knowledge. We also use “consciousness” as if it referred to (7) a thing or a stuff—a screen on to which thoughts and images are projected, a container that has contents, a stage upon which sensory events appear, and a medium that supports phenomena during their brief lifespans. It is altogether too easy to slip from one sense of the word to another without realizing that a transition has occurred, in what philosophers call the pitfall of equivocation. There can be no doubt that “consciousness” is a very useful term in a wide variety of situations. Even so, I would like to suggest that it is also consistently misleading to the extent that we suppose it to refer to something that exists in the same way that air and water exist. Its true mode of existence is more likely that of the unicorn and Sasquatch.
  • The heritage of Cartesian dualism still lies oppressively over most discussions of consciousness and related subjects. Utter a few words about mind, and the ghost rises up within the machine. Monism may seem to be a forced move, or at least a step in the right direction. But is it? And what difference would it make if we were to trade Materialism for Mentalism? If not much can be said about matter, there is equally little to be said about mind.
  • The distinction between inner and outer realms of experience (that is, between the external world so-called and one’s private mental life), although a perfectly reasonable and well-supported idea, seems (!) not to have a phenomenal basis. When we consider just what is present, we can find no grounds for separation. Contemplatives who have systematically studied sensory phenomena are unable to locate them. Sensation per se is nowhere—that is, it is neither internal nor external. What does that tell us, if anything, about awareness?

cortical sensory homunculus

  • What we know of mind, consciousness, and experience, we know by a process of inference from [perceived or projected] patterns of sensation. That process is developmental. We learn by stages what it means to be a self, to be conscious, and to have a mind. (The same holds true for the material world.) Sensory awareness may be epistemological bedrock. It may be as “deeply” as we can “see” “into” ourselves. Sensation may be as much consciousness as we require. Why do we suppose that there is something more?
  • Sensation is multi-modal. We have learned to distinguish at least six kinds—visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, olfactory, ideational—and, with training, we can identify several more “senses.” At any particular moment, do we attend to one mode or several at once? Do we always have the clear sense that we are perceiving this or that kind of stimulus? It is not obvious that we do. When we talk about “consciousness,” which kind(s) are we talking about? Or are we talking about a mysterious something else?
  • The volume of raw data provided by the senses at any given moment of waking life is more than the higher neural functions can render “conscious,” hence the need for massively parallel and cooperative processing to eliminate what would otherwise be overwhelming redundancy with little value in guiding the actions of the organism. There is no evolutionary need for the human being to know more than a small fraction of what might be immediately sensible. One of the primary tasks of the brain is to convert the torrent of potential information into a manageable and useful stream. What does that fact tell us about the limits of our capacity for awareness?
  • As far as we can tell, consciousness is a menu of more or less complex processes that yield a range of more or less detailed reports. At a minimum it involves, besides sensory inputs, the participation of attention, working memory, various mechanisms for recognizing and comparing patterns, and dispositions to action. From an evolutionary viewpoint, consciousness is integral to the activity of the organism, and action the raison d’être of consciousness. If cognitive and neurological scientists are right about that, then whatever the details we may add to our knowledge of consciousness in future, we can safely exclude from our definition the mythical creature so much honored by mystical tradition, to wit, the eternally featureless, passive non-entity Who, despite those deficiencies, witnesses all.

COMIC-miracle-of-consciousness

A Question about Consciousness (the first of many)

From a reader: In Vedic Science there are seven states of consciousness. Is it appropriate to consider them as just “different” states of consciousness -none of them being “higher” than another?

To the extent I can claim to have grasped the conceptual framework of the seven states or levels of consciousness, it would not seem appropriate to consider the various states as merely different so long as one were looking at them from within the tradition. The system, which has its point of origin in the Upanișads, embodies a hierarchy of values rooted in the identity of Atman (Self with an upper-case “s,” the imperishable world-soul) and Brahman, the Supreme.

Between the the first three of the original four kinds of consciousness—waking, dream, dreamless sleep–and turiya (”the fourth,” pure consciousness so-called), latter-day vedantins interposed the transitional stages of soul-consciousness, cosmic-consciousness, and divine consciousness, which are attained through sādhana, spiritual work. The ultimate goal, turiya or unity consciousness is not a state but the putative background against which phenomena emerge. It is also regarded as the source of experience and the True Self. The notions of spiritual ascent and Self-realization are integral to Vedanta. Similar ideas found their way into post-Așokan Buddhism.

Things are bound to have a very different aspect when we examine the methods of spiritual practice, and the assumptions that undergird them, from a standpoint outside of the tradition. For one thing, we are less likely to ignore evidence that contradicts the words of our teachers. Safely out of range of their blandishments, it makes sense to approach the investigation of consciousness with a minimum of metaphysical prejudice, to put off assigning hierarchical status to particular modes of mental operation as long as possible, and to avoid lazily assigning phenomena to sanctioned categories.

Chaos Chu dozing

Experiments with lucid dreaming are in the early stages, and there are obvious difficulties with getting an experiential handle on dreamless sleep. Scientists who study sleep recognize a transitional stage between sleep and waking, called the hypnogogic. The phenomena that result from the practice of systematic mental exercise might be classified differently, and we could add to the list such items as the physiological and phenomenal effects of rhythmic movement, hypnosis, psychoactive substances, sensory deprivation, physiological abnormality, and illness, any or all of which might have a characteristic “state.”

What if we had to describe the same territory to someone who had no knowledge of Indian philosophy or spiritual practice, with minimal reference to the traditional accounts? In the realm of ordinary discourse we might begin by saying that waking, dream, and dreamless sleep are modes of bodily activity, each having specific signs that are, in turn, indicative of underlying physiological activity. The methods we employ to regulate and inspect our own mental processes might well be susceptible to description in similar terms.

Turiya is a special case, to put it mildly. Tradition calls it Pure Consciousness and Self, and makes it the sole candidate for Absolute Reality, yet it has no attributes whatever and bears not the least resemblance to anything one might be tempted to call either consciousness or a self. Yet despite its lack of features attractive and otherwise, we are admonished to get there with all possible haste, as though it were a four-star resort. The ṛshis of yore can take pride in having foisted upon the West a linguistic usage of truly stunning perversity. Whether it is anything more than that, we shall perhaps know one day.

Insomnia

I will be writing a lot about consciousness. Of the many thorny ideas associated with the practice of the contemplative arts, that of consciousness is the one most fraught with pitfalls. It shares many problems with the kindred ideas of mind, experience, and self. In addition to carrying a heavy load of folk-psychology, it is encrusted with philosophical notions that long ago outlived their expiration dates. Because we talk so often about consciousness, awareness, experience, mind, and so on, we tend to believe that we know a lot more about them than we do. In the next post I will list some of the more glaring defects of our discourse on the topic.

The Mirage of Higher Consciousness

In popular writing about “meditation,” skill in the contemplative arts is equated with what is often called “higher consciousness.” The term is a vestige of German Idealism that has been appropriated by denizens of the cultic milieu to evoke and objectify the sense of spaciousness, self-transcendence, and oneness-with-everything that is taken to be the acme of the spiritual life. Although such mental events are comparatively rare, even those experiences classified as “mystical” are entirely normal and consistent with what we know about the physiology of the human body. However, when they are used to support a variety of worldviews that include multiple dimensions, before- and afterlives, alternative physiologies, and Ultimate Realities, we are well advised to stop and think.

Higher-Consciousness

There are compelling reasons to exercise caution in making judgements about the nature of the cosmos based on extraordinary experiences. As organisms enmeshed in a network of biological relations, we human beings are constrained in our ability to know the world in which we live and move and have our being. Like flatworms and voles, we cannot see beyond an experiential horizon limited by the sensory apparatus with which the vagaries of evolution has provided us, and by the material interactions dictated by the range of ecological niches we occupy. Our species has developed a set of intellectual tools, a technology, and methods for their use that allow us to greatly extend the normal range of the senses. Even so, experience alone does not give us warrant to speak of an Absolute or Ultimate Reality except, perhaps, in the sense that there are bound to be limits to both sensation and understanding. The sensory realm is Appearance all the way down[1]. We cannot achieve a God’s-eye view, though we might well be able to convince ourselves that we can. Something like that seems to have happened in the case of certain latter-day “enlightenments.”

There are constraints built into the very activity of striving for mental stability, too. Many of the classic methods of “meditation” do not raise consciousness but lower it. Let us take, for instance, a simple attentional exercise, the basic technique of resting the attention on a pre-selected cluster of sensations. Every gain in sensory purity is accompanied in the same moment by a corresponding loss of perceptual leverage. That tradeoff is not a paradox. It is what happens when, in the course of attaining optimum mental stability, the organism makes the most efficient use of diminishing resources. Think of it as a kind of cognitive downshifting. In the course of enacting the contemplative protocol, the information-processing modules in the cerebral cortex that give semantic structure to events are taken offline one after the other. Mental functions that have been fully recruited to the observation and/or construction of a pre-selected range of sensations are unavailable to be deployed elsewhere. As the various parts of a complex mental procedure become overlearned, and the higher cognitive functions are pacified, awareness is gradually diminished, together with the power to report.

cup of tea

Both concentration and decentration, at their most intense, radically simplify experience by adjusting attentive patterns to bypass memory and the mental operations (pattern-recognition, comparison, etc.) that make noticing possible. The power to conceptualize is likewise inhibited and, along with it, the ability to say anything about what is occurring. Where the capacities for language and thought are in abeyance, we cannot speak of knowledge. Jhāna samādhi lands us in such unvarying landscapes as neither-perception-nor-non-perception and the-extinction-of-perception-and-feeling. The cultivation of liberating insight requires us to remember, to compare, to analyze, and to reflect, functions that can sometimes be performed after the fact. If there is anything aptly called Higher Consciousness, we will find it there, in the realm of knowledge.

[1] The Buddha said as much in the Sabba Sutta (SN 35.23).

Altered States of What?

Writers on “meditation” sometimes characterize contemplative processes as altered states of consciousness. In many such discussions of comparative experience, “consciousness” denotes the condition of being wide awake, responsive to stimuli, and able to deal with the events of everyday life in the usual ways. Ordinary consciousness so conceived is made to serve as the default setting for experience. All other “states” are considered to be deviations from a mode of mental operation alleged to be normal for the quotidian.

Sunrise Santa Cruz

One problem with that concept is that our knowledge of ordinary, everyday consciousness is so slight. We know very little of how our minds work from moment to moment and day to day. And why should we? Most of the time we are following the dictates of archaic biological dispositions, social necessity, or momentary desire, and therefore we are properly focused on getting the job done. Although the notion of a single, basic mode of mental functioning has great appeal—if only on account of its simplicity—it is very much more likely that in the course of a day our minds cycle through a great many diverse “states,” the precise nature of those modes depending upon the varying circumstances. At least that is the tentative hypothesis to which I am led by my own attempts to monitor the vagaries of moment-to-moment mental functioning.

Everyday life (as it is known) is replete with frequent, if unpredictable, instances of the marvelous and the extraordinary, though of course we must have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. That is, we must be capable of a presence-of-mind that is one of the necessary conditions for the contemplative life. Then again, at the extreme of attentive fixation, dissociation, or imagination, events can occur so far out of the ordinary that they can shed a transfiguring light upon our day-to-day lives, or utterly resist assimilation, and leave us speechless. Yet even when we acknowledge the possibility of stupendous phenomena, it is safe to say that there is no standard-of-consciousness against which to measure them.

It is flattering to suppose that from the moment I awaken until the time I fall asleep I maintain the ability to engage in abstract thinking and problem-solving. It would be more accurate to say that, part of the time, I am in a state of readiness to be fully conscious at a moment’s notice. The rest of the time I am daydreaming, dozing, absorbed in contemplation of a mountain view, performing a familiar task automatically, or otherwise occupied. I am not always in full possession of my faculties and ready to rumble, and there is no point in claiming otherwise. It is more fruitful to think about consciousness as a menu of modi operandi from which the organism and the environment together select the one that is the best fit with the situation, without bothering to consult the higher executive functions. That is why, until I began to explore the opportunities for self-awareness, I did not have to think much about what I was doing.

Black-Billed-Nightingale

In short, when we do not need full consciousness we do not use it. We employ higher-level conscious functioning sparingly because it is slow, costly to maintain in terms of physiological resources, fatiguing, and potentially dangerous—while we are inventing the wheel a saber-toothed cat might be able to sneak up on us. And, as it happens, neither are we nearly as conscious as we think we are when, as in “meditation,” we are making as special effort to be more conscious! I shall expand upon that point in the next post.

E2. Exploring Sensations

Sensory stimuli are the raw materials of experience. When we are infants we know sensations as they present themselves, or else as more or less crudely shaped by innate perceptual mechanisms. Because the events of infancy are not associated with words and concepts, it is hard for us to remember them. When they are recalled, they come to us suddenly and involuntarily as vivid sense-memories with little in the way of context. Later in life we know sensation mostly in its “cooked” form, as abstract summaries of episodes, scenes from our lives that have been reduced to a kind of code.

Moreover, since the adoption by human beings of agriculture (approximately 10,000 years ago), a sedentary way of life, and civilization (no less than 6,000 years ago), the importance of technical knowledge and problem-solving ability has increased exponentially. The transition from a culture dominated by the sensuous to one dominated by the intellect has been gradual but pervasive. The net result of these shifts is an overemphasis on cogitation which, together with the increasing pace, complexity, and busyness of our lives, has greatly reduced our opportunities to enjoy sensory phenomena as they are. Sensations have become mere indicators of the objects to be used in pursuit of our goals or else ignored.
paleolithic horse
It comes down to this. We think too much about too many things, and all that thinking gets in the way of our fully knowing and appreciating our bodies as the source and vehicle of sensations in themselves. Thoughts are also sensations, but it is almost impossible for us to see that when we are caught up in thinking. Bodies are not mere vehicles to be directed by minds. Minds are the work of bodies, the signals generated by the organism as it communicates with the world around it and among its various internal systems. The primary activities of mind are to eliminate sensory redundancy and to construct entities out of sensations. The things so fabricated include the world, the self, and the concept of mind.

The exercises given below will help trainees to restore the immediacy of sensory phenomena, free of self-consciousness and instrumental agendas. Learning to recover the knowledge of sensory stimuli as such is one of the primary tasks of a student of the contemplative arts. It will change the quality of your moment-to-moment perception. It will put you back in your body, where you belong.And it will greatly expand your sense of what it means to be a body.

body space image

Exercise 2
A. Bodily sensation
In a comfortable seated posture, practice each of the following exercises for a period of not less than nine minutes and not more than 40 minutes, in sessions separated by at least twelve hours. Until you have become both familiar and comfortable with a given exercise, do not move on to the next. The order of the exercises is progressive. Once mastered, they can be performed in any order. The best place to begin is with attention to posture.
i. Monitor the postural indicators listed in the RUBS-BETH acronym. [See On Posture (3)]. Go through the whole sequence from at least three to as many as twelve times; then see if you can get a sense of the body’s posture as a whole. Repeat the process for several days running. It is fundamental.
ii. Directing attention according to your inner somatic map, scan or sweep whole body, starting with the crown of the head and moving slowly down the front. Be alert for signs of tension and any other conspicuous sensations. Where you find them, pause for a moment, giving the spot your full attention, and see what happens. Then move on. Perform the same procedure for the back side of the body. When you become skilled in this technique, you may notice that you speed up as your inner gaze moves through the body. Try to keep a moderate pace. Lots of interesting things are happening, and you don’t want to miss them on account of impatience.
iii. Attend to any and all sensations associated with posture. Allow attention to float freely among them, but do not get lost in space. Stay with the posture for the full period. If attention wanders, or you find that you have become caught up in thinking, bring your attention back to any aspect of bodily posture, and proceed from there as before.
iv. In this exercise we will focus on a single sensory cluster associated with posture, preferably one that is both relatively strong and constant, and therefore available most of the time. Examples are the thumb-tips, where they meet, and the left palm resting upon the right. You will find others. Pick one and stick with it.
v. Focus on the lowest point in the body where there is a strong sensory constellation, such as the buttocks just below the sit bones, where they meet the cushion, or the soles of the feet if you are sitting in a chair. This is an effective technique for overcoming agitation, and for getting out of your head during storms of compulsive thought.
vi. Letting the attention roam freely, but always with alertness and comprehensive awareness, focus on whatever cluster of sensation happens to be the most prominent at the moment. Stay with it until it breaks up or another event comes to dominate the sensory field. Shift attention to the new tactile alpha. Repeat for the duration of the session.
vii. While remaining alert, relax the focus of attention and enlarge the field of awareness to include the totality of bodily sensations, as much as possible all at once. This can be challenging at first. There is a strong tendency for the undirected attention to flit from one sensory event to another. When the mind grasps something, just remember to relax and let go, again and again, until the mental faculties that select objects have learned their lesson and calmed down. (This practice has been included just to give you a taste of freedom and to provide a hint that it is not always either desirable or necessary to concentrate. If you find that it is extremely frustrating, feel free to drop it and come back to it later when you have become adept at some of the simpler associative methods.)

Bodily sensations that arise in connection to the cycle of breathing in and out are a major component of somatic awareness. They are also the focus of a great many methods of cultivating self-knowledge and mental stability across the whole range of contemplative traditions. Because the topic is so big, we will ignore it for now and return to it in future posts.

B. The Dominant Senses: Sight, Sound, & Touch
In the formal practices of sitting and walking there is little opportunity to observe the senses of taste and smell. Therefore we will limit ourselves to the senses of sight, sound, and touch. The idea here is simple, namely, to learn to clearly distinguish between the (subjective) sensory realms associated with the three selsected sensory faculties, as such. As we shall see a bit further on, the ability to discern the several types of sensation quickly and easily will be a valuable asset when we turn to the development of insight. It will be enough for now just to become skilled at “tuning in,” one at a time, to each of the three dominant senses of Sight, Sound, and Touch. It does not matter where you start.

You may find it helpful to conceive of three distinct sensory realms before you begin. The visual realm is the size and shape of your visual field and includes everything that occurs within it. The auditory realm is located in the vicinity of the ears and (for some people at least) between them. The tactile realm is roughly bounded by the outer layer of skin, & likewise includes all sensations—and there are many different kinds—that occur upon and within the body.

Your task in this exercise is simply to learn how to shift from one of these realms to another. So, having chosen one of the sense-fields, bring it to the foreground of awareness. Fully occupy it with attention, spending as much time as you like in becoming familiar with it. Pay particular attention to its special characteristics. Get a feel for it. Stay with it for, say, a session of nine to fifteen minutes. If your object in the first session was Sight, move on to Sound in your next, and Touch in the one after that. When you have devoted a number of periods to each sense separately, then practice shifting from one to another during a single session. You might begin by devoting a minute each to Sight, Sound, and Touch, over the course of a nine-minute period, thus performing three cycles in all. An athletic interval timer is perfect for measuring exercises of this kind. I believe you will quickly find this work to be fascinating. May you be well and happy!