An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


Consciousness Interruptus

The Temporal Context
and the Self-Referential Trap

David Christopher Lane & Andrea Diem-Lane

“Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain. For if a person were to select the night in which his sleep was undisturbed even by dreams, and were to compare with this the other days and nights of his life, and then were to tell us how many days and nights he had passed in the course of his life better and more pleasantly than this one, I think that any man, I will not say a private man, but even the great king will not find many such days or nights, when compared with the others. Now if death be of such a nature, I say that to die is gain; for eternity is then only a single night.”
In deep sleep there are no thoughts, and there is no world. In the states of waking and dream, there are thoughts, and there is a world also. Just as the spider emits the thread (of the web) out of itself and again withdraws it into itself, likewise the mind projects the world out of itself and again resolves it into itself. When the mind comes out of the Self, the world appears.
—Ramana Maharshi
Any organism that develops a higher form of consciousness which can reflect on its past and future suffers a most curious fate.

I liked Elliot Benjamin "Life, Death, Meaning, and Purpose" very much because it is a brutally honest essay about his existential angst when contemplating about how life may have no ultimate meaning or purpose. As Benjamin readily admits when confronted with a purely materialist universe, “this perspective leaves me feeling somewhat depressed when I think too much about it.” Yes, I think most of us deep down inside have an almost built-in resistance to the idea that this life as we are living now will come to an end with no hopes of something beyond it.

It may well be that any organism that develops a higher form of consciousness (deep self reflection, extended virtual simulation, Edelman's 2nd nature), which can reflect upon its ancestral past and project far into an imagined future, suffers a most curious fate. Being able to self reflect and self project is of a great evolutionary advantage over those organisms that are stuck within the confines of instinct and an extended present moment, since it provides a plethora of options that can be simulated within one's skull before being parlayed in a real and dangerous world. Simply put, reflecting before projecting is a wondrous survival tool, except that it carries an unforeseen downside. To the degree that I am freer than other animals to directionally ponder in my mind unimagined scenarios, it allows me to better adapt to unexpected future outcomes. But this same freedom also opens me to imagine my own cessation and those of others that I am attached to and love.

A dog doesn't appear to meditate on how distant stars will die and transform into black holes, or how universes may appear and disappear over eons of time. Yet, as humans with enlarged brains we evolved to ponder all sorts of imponderables, and thus our Darwinian gift is also at times our Darwinian curse.

This is why Benjamin laments that he may lack a gene (or an added one), since he cannot quite comport with a purely materialist worldview, “Sometimes I wonder if I lack a gene, or perhaps have an extra gene, that makes me 'different' from other people.”

Benjamin is not alone in his sentiment nor do I think his genetic predispositions are different than most. I too feel as Benjamin does, but that is precisely why I think a deeper understanding of how consciousness operates can, to some measure, liberate us from our 2nd nature nausea (to slightly bastardize a famous observation from Albert Camus).

The seemingly most important questions we tend to ask (Is there a God? Do I have a soul? Is there life after death? Etc.) only arise at certain moments in our awareness and completely subside at other moments. Indeed, within any normal 24 hour cycle, the issues we think that are so vital and so urgent only last for a set duration only to disappear when deep sleep overwhelms us and all such questions are forgotten until we awake again.

In a sense, the questions we ask of the universe are really reflections of our state of awareness at any given stage and therefore serve as telling signposts of what that particular state entails. The questions and their desired answers are of secondary importance when viewed in this cyclical light. What seems more elemental is to find out precisely why these pressing concerns bother us so much at 12 noon, but appear lifeless and without urgency at 12 midnight when we are fast asleep.

The thesis is a very simple, if a profound one: We do not fear death in deep sleep and we do not care if there is life after death or if there is a God or who we are. These issues only arise within a certain frame of consciousness which itself is but a temporary state. Change the state and you change the questions that appear to matter so much to us. Our day-to-day experiences are truly one of consciousness interruptus: we grog awake, we stay awake, we take naps, we space out, we grog to sleep, we dream, we fall into a deep slumber. And the process recycles. Depending on which cycle is operative, so too the questions we ask and ponder. We live in a temporal context, a self-referential trap, and hence our first error is that we confuse neurology or our present state of awareness with the absoluteness of all things, forgetting that our awareness is akin to Frijoles saltarines, Mexican jumping beans: going from place to place, but never stationary, never permanent. Just as waves modulate upon the sea, so do our moments of self rise and fall.

I am a strange loop, as Douglas Hofstadter rightly surmised in his book of the same title, but which he first introduced in Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. Depending on which state of awareness I find myself, the feedback circuits alternate and so do my concerns. Most of the time when I am in the waking state I am not doing philosophy, but instead focusing on a whole slew of bodily needs, which demand my attention . . . from eating to drinking to showering, etc.

And no one state remains constantly the same but fluctuates throughout the day and night, giving rise to a cascade of moods and feelings. Yet, each of these states of mind have their own temporary context and instead of one permanent self throughout these changing proceedings I find instead a multiplicity of mini selves each with their own unique perspectives, desires, and troubles. Yes, there is a part of me that attempts to stich all these personas into a unified person I call “my” self, but this unconscious (and sometimes conscious) activity continually gets interrupted. At one moment I may be fearful about flying and what it portends, particularly if I learn about an airline tragedy as happened these past few weeks with the disappearance of a Malaysian jet. At another instance, I don't care about anything else except the tasty lemonade I am sipping and the glistening sun shimmering off the trees in Idyllwild.

Point Panic at Oahu

Perhaps our consciousness can be likened to ocean waves which, depending on their size and shape, we ride in different ways. A wave at Point Panic on the south shore of Oahu necessitates that I bodysurf it going right, with only fins on my feet as my hands plane through its bowling section. However, if I am surfing at the north side of Newport Pier in the dead of Winter I may opt for a 9-foot long board since on occasion I am forced to navigate the barnacled pilings to safely make my way to the other side. Or, if I am staying at La Jolla shores and playing with my two kids and my wife, we may all use body boards and ride white water together until we land on dry sand.

Each wave is different and therefore allows for different possibilities. Analogously the same holds true for the undulating ripples of our own awareness. This is important because quite simply the context of consciousness shapes and contours the content of what arises and what necessitates our attention. The questions we ask of ourselves and of the multiverse at large are products of these changing patterns, whether they are environmentally cued or biochemically triggered.

Thus, I have long noticed that whenever we are happy—very happy—at a particular juncture in life we may also feel a certain anxiety, a certain fear that it may end. Yet, if we are deeply depressed or extremely ill, we don't worry as much (if at all) about death or non-existence. Therefore our questions and worries are a priori predicated upon our wavering moods. Instead of getting trapped with our self-referential feedback loops, pondering conundrums that may never be resolved, it might be wise to introspect on why certain questions only emerge at certain times and not at others. In other words, instead of a continual stream of unanswered queries, we focus on why we are asking why in the first place, such as why I fear death only when I am relatively happy but never when I am severely sick with stomach flu. The questions we ask have less to do with some ultimate truth but more to do with our own neurological phases. This is telling because if we could better understand the ground from which our varying forms of awareness arise, it may transform our reactions when these strange loops of awareness take shape.

Sri Ramana Maharshi
Sri Ramana Maharshi

Apparently sages from both East and West realized the volatile nature of consciousness and instead of being sabotaged by its manifold incarnations, sought to seek its phenomenal origins. Hence, the non-dual philosophy of Indian mystics such as Shankara or Ramana Maharshi becomes clearer sense when self-awareness is viewed in this light. The following question and answer sequence, transcribed live from a conversation between Ramana and a seeker at Arunachala ["Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi"], provides a glimpse into how such an enlightened insight can transfigure how we view ourselves and our surrounding cosmos.

D.: Should we not find out the ultimate reality of the world, individual and God?

M.: These are all conceptions of the 'I'. They arise only after the advent of the 'I'-thought. Did you think of them in your deep sleep? You existed in deep sleep and the same you are now speaking. If they be real should they not be in your sleep also? They are only dependent upon the 'I'-thought. Again does the world tell you 'I am the world'? Does the body say 'I am body'? You say, "This is the world'', "this is body'' and so on. So these are only your conceptions. Find out who you are and there will be an end of all your doubts.

D.: Being always Being-Consciousness-Bliss, why does God place us in difficulties? Why did He create us?

M.: Does God come and tell you that He has placed you in difficulties? It is you who say so. It is again the wrong 'I'. If that disappears there will be no one to say that God created this or that. That which is does not even say 'I am'. For, does any doubt rise 'I am not'? Only in such a case should one be reminding oneself 'I am a man'. One does not. On the other hand, if a doubt arises whether he is a cow or a buffalo he has to remind himself that he is not a cow, etc., but 'I am a man'. This would never happen. Similarly with one's own existence and realisation.

Another from the group asked: How is the ego to be destroyed?

If you seek the ego you will find it does not exist. That is the way to destroy it.
—Sri Ramana Maharshi

M.: Hold the ego first and then ask how it is to be destroyed. Who asks this question? It is the ego. Can the ego ever agree to kill itself? This question is a sure way to cherish the ego and not to kill it. If you seek the ego you will find it does not exist. That is the way to destroy it.

In this connection I am often reminded of a funny incident which took place when I was living in the West Chitrai Street in Madura. A neighbour in an adjoining house anticipated the visit of a thief to his house. He took precautions to catch him. He posted policemen in mufti to guard the two ends of the lane, the entrance and the back-door to his own house. The thief came as expected and the men rushed to catch him. He took in the situation at a glance and shouted "Hold him, hold him. There-he runs-there-there.'' Saying so he made good his escape.

So it is with the ego. Look for it and it will not be found. That is the way to get rid of it.

M.: Who is this witness? You speak of 'witness'. There must be an object and a subject to witness. These are creations of the mind. The idea of witness is in the mind. If there was the witness of oblivion did he say, 'I witness oblivion'? You, with your mind, said just now that there must be a witness. Who was the witness? You must reply 'I'. Who is that 'I' again? You are identifying yourself with the ego and say 'I'. Is this ego 'I', the witness? It is the mind that speaks. It cannot be witness of itself. With self-imposed limitations you think that there is a witness of mind and of oblivion. You also say, "I am the witness''. That one who witnesses the oblivion must say, "I witness oblivion''. The present mind cannot arrogate to itself that position.

The whole position becomes thus untenable. Consciousness is unlimited. On becoming limited it simply arrogates to itself the position. There is really nothing to witness. IT is simple BEING.

Sam Harris in a recent interview ["Taming the Mind"] with Dan Harris of ABC's Nightline (apparently not related) gave a pregnant explanation of what meditation accomplishes (or doesn't accomplish?) by focusing on the illusion of a self:

“The same is true for the illusoriness of the self. Consciousness is already free of the feeling that we call “I.” However, a person must change his plane of focus to realize this. Some practices can facilitate this shift in awareness, but there is no truly gradual path that leads there. Many longtime meditators seem completely unaware that these two planes of focus exist, and they spend their lives looking out the window, as it were. I used to be one of them. I'd stay on retreat for a few weeks or months at a time, being mindful of the breath and other sense objects, thinking that if I just got closer to the raw data of experience, a breakthrough would occur. Occasionally, a breakthrough did occur: In a moment of seeing, for instance, there would be pure seeing, and consciousness would appear momentarily free of any feeling to which the notion of a “self” could be attached. But then the experience would fade, and I couldn't get back there at will. There was nothing to do but return to meditating dualistically on contents of consciousness, with self-transcendence as a distant goal.

However, from the non-dual side, ordinary consciousness—the very awareness that you and I are experiencing in this conversation—is already free of self. And this can be pointed out directly, and recognized again and again, as one's only form of practice. So gradual approaches are, almost by definition, misleading. And yet this is where everyone starts.

In criticizing this kind of practice, someone like Eckhart Tolle is echoing the non-dualistic teachings one finds in traditions such as Advaita Vedanta, Zen (sometimes), and Dzogchen. Many of these teachings can sound paradoxical: You can't get there from here. The self that you think you are isn't going to meditate itself into a new condition. This is true, but as Sharon says, it's not always useful. The path is too steep.

Of course, this non-dual teaching, too, can be misleading—because even after one recognizes the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness, one still has to practice that recognition. So there is a point to meditation after all—but it isn't a goal-oriented one. In each moment of real meditation, the self is already transcended.”

The virtual simulator theory of consciousness basically suggests that there is no absolute concrete self, as such, but rather a kaleidoscope of enveloping simulations which provide us with an almost infinite array of stratagems for future orientations or past musings for what was or could have been. Rarely do we ever experience the space prior or between such mental facsimiles. Yet this very ground of being is always present and never absent from any phrenic permutations, just as in movies which may change nightly whereas the projector and the screen upon which they are projected remain constant.

Realizing that consciousness unfolds in this sequential manner (with dreaming being the most illustrative example of how a virtual simulator operates) it provides us with a bridge with which to better appreciate Benjamin's sorrow when he writes, “But if all I am is a formation of chemicals that came about for no 'meaningful' or 'purposeful' reason whatsoever, and when I die that is it—well to be very candid I find this sad.”

This is what meditation can unlock: direct insight into how the mind constantly seduces us into believing its conjurings to be the sum total of reality.

Yes, it is indeed sad, but only during a very specific stage in awareness. Such sadness doesn't arise in us when we are fast asleep or when we are slurping on a classic Coke and not thinking about much of anything except that next bite of a hot pretzel dipped in mustard. This is not to dismiss Benjamin's astute observation about meaninglessness, because we all share (more or less) that same sense of dread at certain points, but to dig deeper and find out in what specific contexts does our individuated selves loom so large as to bring such angst into the forefront of our attention. This is what meditation can unlock: direct insight into how the mind constantly seduces us into believing its conjurings to be the sum total of reality, when in, point of observation, they are merely mapping transparencies evolved over long gestations of time to help 2nd nature organisms better survive and adapt in this Hunger Games like carnivore show we call living. Look to the source of where such forms of consciousness emerge and follow how long these temporary aberrations persist and the Ferris wheel nature of self-reflective awareness becomes all too obvious. We may not be able to stop our mind from its simulating habits (after all, developing such a turnstile of past and future ruminations is of a great evolutionary advantage to us), but if we can remain a witness and not a prisoner to its concealing allurements, then we can be liberated from its more negative consequences. In this way, we can better enjoy the firework display of consciousness because we are keenly cognizant of its ephemeral nature and purpose.

Of course, this doesn't mean that by our Ramana like inquiries (or meditations) we have somehow solved the riddle of existence and forever ended the samsara of pain, which inevitably arises within the human condition, but it does provide a profound pathway to alleviate much of the unnecessary sufferings we experience because we have conflated our current brain state for the “real” state of the universe.

Benjamin brilliantly captured the essence of the virtual simulator and its machine like ability to churn over unsolved mysteries when he wrote, “Well it's Friday night and I think I'll indulge in my frequent Friday night habit of spacing out with some wine cooler and cheese doodles while I listen to some very old-fashioned show music from the 1950s on my 'record player.' But while I am doing this, my subconscious will be hard at work pondering if there could possibly be any meaning or purpose to the universe, and if I come up with any creative insights I'll be sure to let you know.”

The good news here is that as Ramana Maharshi and other Advaita Vedantists may be quick to point out, much later in the night when we are all in a dreamless sleep, we will remain blissfully unaware not only of this world and ourselves, but also of worries about meaning and death and the purpose of it all. As Plato opined (via the mouthpiece of Socrates) centuries ago in his Apology, “Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain.”

The secret is to understand that the questions that mean so much to us when fully awake (and which serve as relative thermometers of our own well being) lose all their compelling force when we enter a different region of awareness. Awaken to this evidential truth, and the existential questions that have driven humankind near the brink of madness since time immemorial melt away like ice in an unremitting desert sun.

“To mistake a wave (and what it brings forth) with the totality of the ocean is like confusing a state of awareness (and its implications) with the ultimate reality of all that exists.”
The Lost Manuscript of Theodore Wilkins

“Do not be attached to the phantasms of light and sound and the magical universes they create, but ask a deeper question. Who is it that sees this light within? Who is it that hears the inner sound? Find the source from where such light and sound flows forth. Find the source of why so many questions arise from this I' thought. That source is our real being.”
—Baba Faqir Chand (free translation from a personal letter dated 1980)

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