Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for December 1st, 2014

For source of adapted image see link

For source of adapted image see link

O MY SERVANT! Free thyself from the fetters of this world, and loose thy soul from the prison of self. Seize thy chance, for it will come to thee no more.

(Bahá’u’lláhHidden Words – Persian 40)

At about this point I was planning to do a review of Karen Wilson’s insightful book 7 Illusions: Discover who you really are. However, my post last week on The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain set another hare running which I mentioned towards the end of the post. I wrote:

Their concept of self is worthy of consideration also, but I’ll keep that for a separate post.

The reason for not tackling it as part of the review of their book is that it spreads into Karen’s book, into a recent article of Sam Harris’s and across into the Bahá’í Writings – too much to cover in the last few lines of a long post.

I decided it was best to tackle it separately now and defer the review of Karen’s book till a bit later – not too much later though I hope.

The No-Self Issue

Hanson and Mendius have a fair bit to say about the nature of the self. At one level it doesn’t particularly challenge my coreBuddha Brain beliefs, as some of what they say can be seen as compatible with the quote at the head of this post, even though the writers themselves do not accept the existence of anything like a soul (page 204):

. . . now we come to perhaps the single greatest source of suffering – and therefore to what is most important to be wise about: the apparent self. . . . When you’re immersed in the flow of life rather than standing apart from it, when ego and egotism fade to the background – then you feel more peaceful and fulfilled.

What’s the problem with that? Most ethically minded people, whether theists or not, regard the ego with great suspicion. But problems then begin to creep in whose full degree of dissonance needs unpacking (page 206):

Paradoxically, the less your “I” is here, the happier you are. Or, as both Buddhist monks and inmates on death row sometimes say: “No self, no problem.”

What exactly do they mean by ‘no self’? Is that no self at all of any kind? Well, maybe. We need to look at various other expressions they use before looking at what an atheist practitioner of Buddhist meditation thinks it means.

First of all, they explain (page 213): ‘It’s not so much that we have a self, it’s that we do self-ing.’ More than that, they feel we should (page 214): . . . try to keep remembering that who you are as a person – dynamic, intertwined with the world – is more alive, interesting, capable, and remarkable than any self.’ And most dismissively of all they describe the self as (page 215) ‘simply an arising mental pattern that’s not categorically different from or better than any other mind-object.’

While there is a sense that they are slightly hedging their bets here, Sam Harris is not so coy about the matter. In his fascinating article, which my good friend Barney alerted me to – An Atheist’s Guide to Spirituality – he pushes the boundaries somewhat further:

Indeed, the conventional sense of self is an illusion—and spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment. There are logical and scientific reasons to accept this claim, but recognizing it to be true is not a matter of understanding these reasons. Like many illusions, the sense of self disappears when closely examined, and this is done through the practice of meditation.

To illustrate the moment when this can be experienced he refers to the ‘awakening’ of Ramana Maharshi (1879– 1950), ‘arguably the most widely revered Indian sage of the 20th century.’

While sitting alone in his uncle’s study, Ramana suddenly became paralyzed by a fear of death. He lay down on the floor, convinced that he would soon die, but rather than remaining terrified, he decided to locate the self that was about to disappear. He focused on the feeling of “I”—a process he later called “self inquiry”—and found it to be absent from the field of consciousness. Ramana the person didn’t die that day, but he claimed that the feeling of being a separate self never darkened his consciousness again.

Ramana described his conclusion from this by saying at one point:

The mind is a bundle of thoughts. The thoughts arise because there is the thinker. The thinker is the ego. The ego, if sought, will automatically vanish.

Though Ramana’s disciple, Poonja-Ji, had a great impact on Sam Harris, there was a teacher who made an even greater impression: ‘Another teacher, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, had a lasting effect on me.’

What he feels he learnt from Tulku Urgyen he describes with dramatic clarity:

The genius of Tulku Urgyen was that he could point out the nature of mind with the precision and matter-of-factness of teaching a person how to thread a needle and could get an ordinary meditator like me to recognize that consciousness is intrinsically free of self. There might be some initial struggle and uncertainty, depending on the student, but once the truth of nonduality had been glimpsed, it became obvious that it was always available— and there was never any doubt about how to see it again. I came to Tulku Urgyen yearning for the experience of self-transcendence, and in a few minutes he showed me that I had no self to transcend.

He unpacks its implications in the light of subsequent practice:

This instruction was, without question, the most important thing I have ever been explicitly taught by another human being. It has given me a way to escape the usual tides of psychological suffering—fear, anger, shame—in an instant. At my level of practice, this freedom lasts only a few moments. But these moments can be repeated, and they can grow in duration. Punctuating ordinary experience in this way makes all the difference. In fact, when I pay attention, it is impossible for me to feel like a self at all: The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows. That which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not fearful. The moment I am lost in thought, however, I’m as confused as anyone else.

For Harris as an atheist one of the greatest benefits of his assisted experience, he believed, was that he did not have to accept any of the ‘baggage’ of the religion in whose context these insights and practices had been generated – he could make sense of the experience in his own way. I’m not so sure it was really as simple as that.

Seven IllusionsSeven Illusions is on the same wavelength to a degree. As a result of persistent meditation (Kindle Reference 448):

Only that which is not truly you will disappear. And you will feel more like yourself than ever before. Inside yourself now, you KNOW who you are. But most of the time you do not act who you are.

She continues to use ‘self’ language, so I find the path she then takes me on somehow more meaningful than where Harris and the Buddha book leave me. Also she is using terms which resonate with me, and which I have explored in earlier posts (my italics – 456):

In each situation, in each moment, quiet your mind and listen to your heart and your gut feelings. And then act or talk accordingly to these feelings.

The exhilaration of her conclusion is infectious though I will be exploring some reservations about her use of the word mind in exactly this way when I come to review her book (520):

That`s when it hit me: I AM even when I don`t think, therefore I am not my mind!

Where’s the Catch?

To explore this further with some hope of clarity I need to go back to something Harris says: ‘The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows.’

He may have disposed of the self in a way that preserves his atheism intact. What he skates over are the implications of the consciousness with which he is left. I can see that we are close to Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the self as it merges back into the ground of being – blending its drop into the ocean once more.

But there’s a catch, isn’t there? There is still some kind of consciousness albeit without the usual boundaries. There is still an awareness with which he is connected and whose experience he remembers even if he cannot sustain that kind of awareness for long.

Setting aside my sense, which I have explored at length elsewhere, that the mere existence of consciousness warrants a transcendent explanation, where does this leave us?

Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander

I am reminded here of the detailed, and in my view completely trustworthy, account of a near death experience given by Eben Alexander. I need to quote from it at some length to make its relevance completely clear. Describing the early stages of his NDE he finds it frankly bizarre (page 77):

To say that at that point in the proceedings I still had no idea who I was or where I’d come from sounds somewhat perplexing, I know. After all, how could I be learning all these stunningly complex and beautiful things, how could I see the girl next to me, and the blossoming trees and waterfalls and villagers, and still not know that it was I, Eben Alexander, who was the one experiencing them? How could I understand all that I did, yet not realize that on earth I was a doctor, husband, and father?

The girl accompanies him through almost all the stages of his journey. When he makes his improbable recovery from the week-long encephalitis-induced coma, as an adopted child he goes back to exploring his birth family, an exploration interrupted almost before it began by his life-threatening illness. He makes contact and discovers that he had had a birth sister who died. When he finally sees the photograph of her a dramatic realization slowly dawns (pages 166-167):

In that one moment, in the bedroom of our house, on a rainy Tuesday morning, the higher and the lower worlds met. Seeing that photo made me feel a little like the boy in the fairy tale who travels to the other world and then returns, only to find that it was all a dream—until he looks in his pocket and finds a scintillating handful of magical earth from the realms beyond.

As much as I’d tried to deny it, for weeks now a fight had been going on inside me. A fight between the part of my mind that had been out there beyond the body, and the doctor—the healer who had pledged himself to science. I looked into the face of my sister, my angel, and I knew—knew completely—that the two people I had been in the last few months, since coming back, were indeed one. I needed to completely embrace my role as a doctor, as a scientist and healer, and as the subject of a very unlikely, very real, very important journey into the Divine itself. It was important not because of me, but because of the fantastically, deal-breakingly convincing details behind it. My NDE had healed my fragmented soul. It had let me know that I had always been loved, and it also showed me that absolutely everyone else in the universe is loved, too. And it had done so while placing my physical body into a state that, by medical science’s current terms, should have made it impossible for me to have experienced anything.

His whole account absolutely requires careful reading. It is to be trusted in my view first of all because it is written by someone who was, before his NDE, an atheist, as Harris is, secondly because he is an academic as well as a highly regarded neurosurgeon with much to lose from declaring himself as a believer in such things, and lastly because he followed the advice of his son and recorded the whole experience before reading any NDE literature that might have unduly influenced his narrative.

What do the passages I have just quoted suggest?

Well, I think they bridge the gap between what Harris describes and what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tells us:

Know thou for a certainty that in the divine worlds the spiritual beloved ones will recognize one another, and will seek union with each other, but a spiritual union. Likewise a love that one may have entertained for anyone will not be forgotten in the world of the Kingdom, nor wilt thou forget there the life that thou hadst in the material world. (Tablets: page 730)

How come?

For a start, it shows someone conscious but without any memory for who he is – awareness stripped of self, in the terms we are using here. This leaves me feeling it maps onto, even if it goes beyond, the state of mind Harris describes.

So, with at least some resemblance to an extreme meditative state, it takes us one step further. It demonstrates consciousness without a brain. The coma has helpfully disconnected his brain, without any need for him to learn how to do it himself via meditation, and yet he is still aware.

Even more amazing is that, with his brain shut down, he has been able to retain detailed memories of a rich week-long experience and begin the process of reintegrating it into his brain-bound identity.

Equally surprisingly, a consciousness he didn’t know but which clearly knew him, a survivor of the body’s death, connects with him. Even though, in this NDE Alexander has forgotten who he is, and therefore does not confirm that aspect of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote, the consciousness of his dead sister had obviously retained a sense of who she had been and what her relationships were, even when there had been no interaction physically with Alexander during her mortal life. It seems legitimate to assume that, if Alexander’s experience is a precursor to an eternal afterlife, there would be time for him to reconnect with memories of who he was.

How it touches me?

For reasons I have discussed at length elsewhere, I don’t expect any of this to convince a sceptic. The best I can do is use it to demonstrate that believing in survival after death or the transcendent nature of consciousness is just as rational as not doing so. An experience that an atheist interprets in purely material terms may, to a believer’s eyes, quite reasonably point to the reality of a transcendent dimension. It’s a choice, but the evidence can never be compelling if Hick is right and this is God’s way of leaving us free to decide for ourselves.

My fascination with this particular crux though is not quite the same as my interest in NDEs. It’s more immediate and urgent, less happy being theoretical and distant. Ever since the mid-70s I have been deeply intrigued by consciousness and have used dreams, breathing meditations, along with various forms of therapy, to explore hidden aspects of my own mind experientially, not theoretically.

What is eluding me right now is what others profess to have experienced – pure consciousness stripped of the static generated by our brains. Knowing how obstinate I have been in seeking to unlock other doors of perception, I could be a while yet battling with this one. Below is the guided meditation I created for myself from the Buddha’s Brain book to help me on my way with this task.

We’ll see if I have enough time this side of the grave.

Awareness Meditation

Read Full Post »