BLOG

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
The Seamless Mind – From Golgi To God

The Golgi body is an organelle, a subcellular structure that is part of each cell like organs are part of each body. It was named in 1898 after its discoverer, the Italian scientist Camillo Golgi

...
Read more >
June 20, 2022

The hidden power of awareness.

Why Golgi?

The Golgi body is an organelle, a subcellular structure that is part of each cell like organs are part of each body. It was named in 1898 after its discoverer, the Italian scientist Camillo Golgi. Its function is to package proteins inside the cell so that they are transportable outside the cell as they are sent to their destination. As an alliteration to ‘God’, ‘Golgi’ creates a verbal resonance across the vast spectrum of seemingly separate domains of knowledge, from the most intricately physical to the numinous. Those domains are not separate at all, and similar to the Golgi body’s function, I try to package this knowledge in such a way as to make it transportable across such seemingly opposed and distant ways of knowing – science, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality.

Resistance to religion

A student in the Mindsight Intensive program sent me this eloquent email:

“I feel the urge to tell you that this week’s lecture touched me profoundly as it summarized at different points what is happening in my life. I will not pretend to understand everything you said, and will not try to use your language because I wouldn’t know how to. But most of the lecture resonated with me because it reflected what I am feeling in my day-to-day, in this journey of discovery I am in.

Since I am (finally) internalizing that there is no use in trying to control anything, I have now space to experience the order/energy/algorithm, which is beyond my understanding, but is making things move (don’t ask for an explanation, please). I just need to provide life with a nudge and the rest is taken care of … The Symphony of Life … I am in awe at the synchronicity and multidimensionality of events and the web of interactions. The examples in my life are too many, and maybe too menial, to list. I see the algorithm in action every day and am so proud to see myself watching life unfold, the good and the bad, welcoming the visits of my different parts, entertaining them, and sending them back home if needed. Spending more time with my Wise Self. So wonderful to witness my own life, eyes wide open, and experience it with a belly full of warrior strength, with joy and gratitude. I recognized during the lecture how I was living my life so diachronically and so unidimensionally, blinders on.

Now that I am more in touch with nature, with my body, my roots, I question (not too deeply, to tell you the truth) where I come from and the reason why I am here on this plane (feeling that there are other planes that I cannot grasp), I do feel that the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere. I also notice that there are many small things that capture my attention intensely and I can feel their effect in my body (at a recent meditation retreat in the mountain, I saw myself in an ant carrying a big leaf, and I saw my need to ‘look up to the sky’ in a group of fireflies up in a tree). I feel how nature gives me answers in a different dimension. Wondering if I am resisting that I am opening my eyes to ‘God’s world’, just because of the word ‘God’ (my underline).

This Mindsight Intensive session has been the best I have taken so far. Or it just happened when I needed it most … speaking of Symphony of Life…”.

The numinous

We will address the meaning of ‘numinous’ in more detail below. Rudolf Otto coined this term to denote a complex psychological set of experiences that arise when we are faced with the sacred. This email contains a reference (‘God’s world’) to a numinous experience described by Dostoevski in ‘The House of the Dead’: Dostoevski records how one summer day during his term of imprisonment, while he was at work carrying bricks by the banks of the river, he was suddenly struck by the surrounding landscape and overcome with profound emotion:

“Sometimes I would fix my sight for a long while upon the poor smokey cabin of some baigouch; I would study the bluish smoke as it curled in the air, the Kirghiz woman busy with her sheep. … The things I saw were wild, savage, poverty-stricken; but they were free. I would follow the flight of a bird threading its way in the pure transparent air; now it skims the water, now disappears in the azure sky, now suddenly comes to view again, a mere point in space. Even the poor wee floweret fading in the cleft of the bank, which would show itself when spring began, fixed my attention and would draw my tears.“ Dostoevski then remarks that this was the only spot at which he saw “God’s world, a pure and bright horizon, the free desert steppes”; and in casting his gaze across the immense desert space, he found he was able to forget his “wretched self”.

Keiji Nishitani, the leading representative of the Kyoto School of Philosophy, whose work bridges Eastern and Western thought, comments on Dostoevski’s passage as follows:

“The things that Dostoevski draws attention to are all things we come in touch with in our everyday lives. We speak of them as real in the everyday sense of the word, and from there go on to our scientific and philosophical theories. But for such commonplace things to become the focus of so intense a concentration, to capture one’s attention to that almost abnormal degree, is by no means an everyday occurrence. Nor does it spring from scientific or metaphysical reflection. Things that we are accustomed to speaking of as real forced their reality upon him in a completely different dimension. He saw the same real things we all see, but the significance of the realness and the sense of the real in them that he experienced in perceiving them as real are something altogether qualitatively different. Thus was he able to forget his ‘wretched self’ and to open his eyes to ‘God’s world’.”

My student’s sentence encapsulates a thorny topic: “Wondering if I am resisting that I am opening my eyes to ‘God’s world’, just because of the word ‘God’.” The separation of what we deem to be secular (from Latin ‘saecularis’ = ‘worldly’) from the sacred (holy, connected to spirituality, religion, or God) is by no means a reflection of reality, but a mind construct. It is the result of a particular awareness mode we automatically ‘slide into’ as we leave childhood to grow into adulthood. This mode is our ordinary waking consciousness (including nighttime dreams), also called the field of consciousness, which envelops us like water envelops fish. We assume that this is the only available awareness mode we have and that the world revealed to us when we wake up in the morning is reality. Neither is accurate. The way we ordinarily experience life and interpret reality is a mental construct, a controlled, albeit useful illusion, created by the brain’s energy processing. The brain pares down energy flow absorbed through the senses from its environment to a bare minimum, in order to create in our central nervous system manageable information flow our organism can then efficiently use to ensure survival. As rich as this tapestry of day-to-day lived reality seems, it is just a construct or representation of reality based on this measly trickle of processed energy and information flow. This reality construct of the field of consciousness is furthermore only based on existence, ignoring that all existence arises from and disappears into non-existence. If we train our minds to open to a vast hidden potential lying in wait to be discovered and activated, more profound awareness modes are available to us and deeper healing becomes possible. Tapping into this potential allows us to see ordinary waking consciousness and its reality constructs from a far larger context and perspective, which significantly contributes to diminishing our suffering.

The field of consciousness and its maps and menus

The structure of this field of consciousness is characterized by concepts connected to emotions. The organism’s overall energy flow gets processed by the brain in extremely complex ways. This results in thoughts and concepts, which then get woven into clusters and associations in the form of narratives after having been imbued by emotions. We call this information flow. What is unique about information flow is that it is energy pointing beyond itself like a map pointing to a territory or a menu pointing to a meal. This very act of pointing contributes to a deeply engrained conceptual split between subject and object we call duality, which is a hallmark of the field of consciousness. After all, if something points, it starts somewhere and points to somewhere else. In our case, the pointing starts with the subject which points to something else, the object: ‘I’ (the subject) own a ‘house’ (object), ‘I’ see a ‘flower’, and so on – perceiving our very existence from the standpoint of ‘me’ the subject, immersed in a world of objects.

In this world of duality, even the ‘subject’ ‘I’ or ‘me’ becomes an object I can describe and comment on. If you were asked who you are, you would come up with a list of ‘things’ such as ‘man, woman, body, teacher, dancer, husband, wife, son, daughter, responsible, free spirit’, etc. In other words, you would come up yet again with a whole list of objects, unable to name the subject who names it all. Thus, the subject pointing to itself turns itself into an object of its own pointing. So even the ‘I’ in the sentence ‘I own a house’ is experienced as an object that is observable to me. The real me as the pure subject remains forever elusive. This split of reality into a world of duality often takes us so far as to almost completely erase any awareness of a connection between me the subject, and the world of objects around me. This is how, for example, the emotionally abusive husband of a recent patient of mine, can tell her with full conviction that her unhappiness in the marriage has nothing to do with him, that he is perfectly normal, and that she is the one who needs help.

To be clear, the thought, concept, or word ‘table’ is not the wooden 4-legged object it points to. Like the map or the menu, it is a pure construction in our mind. Thoughts and narratives are not reality presenting itself, but re-presented reality. They are not the territory of life experience we live in, the meal of fully embodied living, but only the map of the territory of reality we use in order to orient ourselves, the menu of the meal of lived life. Take any thought, any concept, any name, or any story, they are all about reality, like the finger pointing to the moon as they say in Zen, not reality or the moon itself. In other words, the conceptual world we live in and project onto reality is a virtual world of aboutness, an energy flow in our organism that has been processed by the brain to such complexity that it ends up pointing beyond itself.

As we have seen, the field of consciousness is one encompassing construction of energy flow that manifests as cognition connected to emotions, like the map of a territory or the menu of a meal. Both map and menu ‘point beyond themselves’ to the territory or meal respectively. Nowadays in the age of augmented and virtual reality, our maps have evolved to an extreme degree as we can populate our maps with photos and videos of the mapped regions, or even visit virtually in the comfort of our sofa. However, no matter how you slice it, no matter how augmented our maps may be, they will never be the territory we map. Going to visit Paris will always be a fundamentally different experience than virtual visits. Reading the item ‘moules frites a la marinière’ on the menu will never satisfy your hunger, no matter how succulent it sounds! Unwittingly, this is exactly the world we live in: A constructed map of reality, a menu of real experience, without much access to real reality. I recall the mind-bogglingly sad comment of a resident of Las Vegas, who in all earnest commented on how lucky they are in Las Vegas because they have all of Europe right there and don’t need to fly all the way to Europe to see the Eiffel tower or Venice.

Everything within that mapped world, even the subject ‘me’ who allegedly observes everything, including myself, get mapped as an object of our observation ‘out there’. This is called the far side of being. Within the inescapable field of consciousness, in which everything is named, through the naming process itself everything becomes part of the far side of being. I am here and the table is there, on the far side of me. Even when I look at myself, the elusive ‘I’ is somewhere not to be found, while the ‘myself’ is there on the far side. And so it is with God; whatever you may ever say about God, it is always and inescapably a map of a reality we cannot access from the vantage point of the field of consciousness. God is always on the far side, as we well know from the way we live and speak about it. God is in church, but not in a casino; the spiritual realm is over there where I am not, never right here where I am; spiritual life is in the afterlife, never right here in this life; God is in a monastery, not in a science lab; despite Jesus’ well-known invitations to all of humanity, non-Catholics are frowned upon when they take communion, maybe because the catholic God is head of a more exclusive club than the infidel pagan club. If I write about physiological processes in the body, I allegedly don’t write about spirituality – in short, God is sacred, yet forever intangible; Golgi is not sacred, and unfortunately for most people, the sacred is never here, but always on the far side somewhere else.

For my student, whom I would characterize as, shall we say, a rational humanist (I don’t know whether she would see herself that way), using the word ‘God’ entails too many distorting connotations for comfort, causing resistance to using it. With religion, some people associate belief, dogma, doctrine, the irrational, and even magical thinking, which is for them not a particularly appealing way of using their minds and coming to terms with existential concerns. Does it have to be like that? Are God and Golgi possibly much closer related than one might think?

The invisible cage

Coming back to our field of consciousness, here is the rub as Hamlet would say: We have this unconscious habit of confusing the map with the territory, the stories we live by with the reality we live in. Within this awareness mode, the only one most people are ever familiar with, everything is named, and we erroneously come to believe that what is named, is known. We were conditioned to that from a very young age when we began to develop language. Remember as a young parent your little munchkin, age two or so, pointing to something and you responding with “flower, dog, sky, etc.!” Or at a slightly older age being asked “what is that?” and your response “a bird, a car, a book, etc.” And then later “what is this man doing?” and you say “he is eating an apple”. And lastly the oh so annoying ‘why?’ stage, annoying because most of the time you did not have an answer: “Why don’t dogs have feathers?” “(God knows! ….)”. Anyway, you named the whole world for the child, and with these names, you wove whole narratives, in the end proudly gloating to other parents about this little genius you now have in your household, who knows how to read ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ at the age of four.

This process, as you can certainly recall, was invested with strong emotions of parental approval and child pride, reinforcing the message that having the menu will satisfy your hunger. Naming the objects of the world came to be synonymous with the belief that knowing the names means that we know what the names refer to. In addition, we came to presume that just because we have seen something before, we now know what it is, because it has the same name – yesterday’s flower in my backyard is the same as today’s flower at the store … just a flower. Our mind associates everything with names and every name with other names. When we see things again, we can then just use the old familiar names, and the more we converse with these names that we weave into stories, the more we mix with their content, get to know them and become more intimate with them. Before we know it, we have grown into an invisible, transparent virtual bubble of name and narrative associations, through which we see the world, believing that what we think and have associated with words, names and stories, is reality – and that, is one of the most profound illusions of human existence.

To be sure, naming to map is not a bad thing. It is what brains do in order to be able to turn amorphous energy flow into useful information bits we can own, manipulate, play with, and creatively combine in myriads ways. It becomes problematic when we (1) confuse named reality with real reality, (2) erroneously believe that knowledge coming from this naming process is knowledge of real reality, (3) allow the left brain to dominate our lives through this naming process, and (4) miss out on living the uniqueness of present-moment experience and real reality by being imprisoned by the constructed world of names that can only capture averaged experiences.

The structural limitations of our senses

Let’s get back to Golgi for a moment, my imaginative mascot for scientific, physical reality. Our external senses of touch, sight, sound, taste and smell receive different sections of the total spectrum of energy from the universe (called exteroception). Our organism receives the universe’s energy through our external senses in ways that are restricted by the specific human neural architecture. For example, a vulture has a different neural architecture, and therefore can receive olfactory energy to a much more sensitive degree than we can: It can smell carrion from a mile away, an impossible feat for us. The same applies to our eyes which are incapable of registering UV light or x-rays, and the energy we absorb through nutrition and air, or through our internal somatic senses when we ‘feel’ our body (called interoception). Whichever senses receive energy (exteroception or interoception), or processes absorb and release energy (nutrition, air, skin), the energy is fundamentally always the same: Mostly (to keep it simple) electromagnetic waves and electrochemical processes. Our senses, however, are architecturally limited in how large a chunk of the whole energy spectrum of the universe they are capable of registering.

Emergent properties

While our organism exchanges energy with its environment, another parallel exchange process unfolds simultaneously courtesy of our nervous system, which includes peripheral nerves, the autonomic nervous system, the spine, and the brain with its neurons and glia cells. The electrochemical energy received through our external and internal senses gets processed by the central nervous system in mindbogglingly complex ways. This energy processing is the construction of new energy patterns that emerge from the body. What is so extraordinary is that these resulting energy flow constructions we like to call ‘information’, and which we experience as thoughts, are a form of energy patterns that ‘mysteriously’ point beyond themselves. I say ‘mysteriously’, not because of some kind of hocus-pocus lurking in reality, but simply because we don’t yet know exactly how that happens. It happens though in the same way as a multitude of cars gives rise to traffic with its own laws; the complexity of energy flow processing gives rise to cognition with its own characteristic of pointing beyond itself. By ‘pointing beyond itself’ I mean quite simply that the word ‘dog’ is not the dog itself; it is merely a thought that points to something else than the thought itself, in this case, the dog. We summarily call these emergent energy constructions ‘mind’, but a closer look at them reveals what I have already described above: In ordinary, unexamined life, what we call ‘mind’ moves mostly within the field of consciousness, this invisible bubble of stories we mistake for reality. And mind, for that matter, obeys different laws and principles than the physical world, even though no other extraneous substances or notions about energy than the ones we know so far through physics, are required to make sense of it.

Re-connecting

Here is my potentially surprising claim: It is perfectly reasonable to see God and the sacred through science, and the secular physical through God. They are in fact one and the same. What differentiates the secular from the sacred is not content, but the degree to which we know the human mind. The same activity, let’s say carrying bricks on a construction site, can be secular or sacred depending on how we approach it and end up experiencing it. That difference is achieved not by slicing reality into secular and sacred parts as our naming mind likes to do, but by expanding our awareness beyond the field of consciousness. My student’s God then does not have to be resisted, because God does not have to remain a menu item, superficially mapped out by a name attached to associations that get projected onto an unknown reality ‘out there’ on the far side. Instead, it can be fully embraced as real reality manifesting itself directly, which we now know is beyond names, words, and stories – the nameless, timeless and unknowable. The notion of religion could become rehabilitated to its original Latin meaning, re-connection (from Latin ‘re-ligio’) with a depth of awareness not found in ordinary waking consciousness. Religion can evoke strong aversion if it is misunderstood as a socio-political organization responsible for providing a collection of dogmas designed to make people feel good and control their attitudes, behaviors, and morals. This is not to say that being part of a community that engages in shared rituals cannot be deeply inspiring. But when we explore the cracks and gaps of our ordinary waking consciousness and begin the journey beyond it towards the development of further awareness modes available to us, religion can move beyond being the depository of thoughts about deeper reality, and instead become a branch of the discipline of mindsight that can teach us how to let real reality be revealed to us, which is what the notion of ‘God’ ultimately points to.

The mirrored door

When we explore ordinary waking consciousness more closely, we quickly come to realize that it contains gaps and cracks. ‘There is something wrong in the state of Denmark’ (Shakespeare). Oedipus is blind to the fact that he is the cause of a plague ravaging Thebes, having unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. We tend to be blind to the fact that our endless suffering cannot be eradicated by improving the nightmare of ordinary waking consciousness. We must wake up from it and doing so is not easy.

The field of consciousness is like a mirrored door we do not recognize as a door. We strut in front of it, endlessly looking at the prison of constructed reality reflected back to us, narcissistically admiring the power of our own constructions without appreciating their limitations and destructive aspects. We do everything we can to push away and ignore the underbelly of existence, which amounts to nothing more than trying to improve the world of nightmares. Strikingly, this also applies to much of the Western mindfulness meditation industry, which for the most part exclusively focuses on aspects of the field of consciousness, depriving us of seeing the mirrored door as a passage that opens to the dormant potential of two further awareness modes we usually never tap into.

I am reminded of a cartoon I saw decades ago in my youth. It depicted the human condition. You saw three obviously unfriendly and disgruntled giants walking in single file, one behind the other, all three of them stooped forward holding their heads at about waist height. On top of them, along their horizontal backs ran an unsteady-looking train track, upon which a tiny passenger train was driving along. You clearly would not have wanted to be in that train, as one of these moody giants could have stood up straight at any moment and thrown the whole train into oblivion. The underbelly of existence is non-existence. We may occasionally touch upon it intellectually, but beyond that, we avoid it like the plague by staying within the ‘safe’ confines of the golden cage of existence, our ordinary waking consciousness.

Everything that exists appears to be coming into existence at some point in time and disappearing out of existence at another point in time. From the perspective of the field of consciousness, everything – and I mean everything – comes and goes, is born and dies, appears and disappears. Even the eternal God of religious institutions imagined to be beyond the cycle of birth and death, exists in endless time, and since time is something that exists, endless or not, it is bound to arise and disappear. In short, from the point of view of ordinary consciousness, death is inevitable, and we mean here the decomposition of our embodied existence. But death is so distasteful that ordinary waking consciousness cleverly designs stories of survival in the form of thoughts we believe in and that seems to make us feel better: The rainbow bridge, paradisiacal places we will rejoin our loved ones, notions of eternal souls, or seeing our loved ones all around us wherever we go in their decomposed chemical form of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, potassium, sodium, etc. as it gets recycled into the natural world. There is nothing wrong with these stories of survival, except that for many people they do not suffice and lead to limited results with regards to their attempts at decreasing suffering in their lives. They miss recognizing the mirrored door as a passage and limit access to the full awareness potential we all have.

Nothingness

The necessary awareness jump we need to take to open the mirrored door is to surrender to annihilation, nullification, or nothingness – arriving at a dead end and falling off the cliff. That is not easy and can create a lot of fear. It is therefore imperative to have the appropriate mind training to take that step without causing harm. In opening that door, we enter the mystery of the numinous introduced above. This mystery is not understood as something otherworldly but in the sense of its Latin roots meaning ‘obscure’. It is about meeting a wholly other aspect of reality never seen before, typically experienced with blank wonder and stupor. It is entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life and evokes a reaction of silence. We begin enlarging our awareness to include the awareness mode of the field of nothingness.

At first, we meet the nullification of the world, during which process we learn to surrender to nothingness. However, for a time nothingness is still seen from the perspective of an enduring self, and therefore continues to partially remain within the field of duality. What that means is that ‘nothing’ still survives as ‘something’ we are aware of. The thing we are learning to surrender to is called ‘nothing’. As we eventually realize that this inevitable nullification of existence also applies to the constructed self, it also dissolves into nothing, and no vantage point remains from which to see nothing as something. At that point the breakthrough to the next most encompassing awareness mode occurs, the field of emptiness.

It is called that way because we then fully realize reality to be as it is, free from our confusion with the constructed maps about reality. There is no attachment left to the constructions of the field of consciousness. This does not mean that we don’t grieve the loss of our loved ones anymore, or that we stop paying our taxes. It simply means that we have stopped seeing existence as fundamental to reality, and instead have come to realize that everything is nameless, timeless potential in perpetual movements of coalescence and decomposition, so that nothing is ever born, and nothing ever dies. There is only movement and transformation, and that is our true identity. As they say in Zen, at the beginning of the journey (as we explore the field of consciousness) a mountain is a mountain (unidimensional view); in the middle of the journey (as we explore the field of nothingness), the mountain ceases to be a mountain (two-dimensional view); at the end of the journey (when the field of emptiness reveals itself), the mountain is again a mountain, but a profoundly different, now three-dimensional view of the mountain. When we started, we were awed by the magic show of the field of consciousness, believing that the magician has superpowers we could be jealous of not having. In the middle, we became disheartened by the realization that these are only tricks and the whole magic we saw was fake (the field of nothingness). In the end, we have been transformed by the power of the performance and can now fully enjoy the magic show, knowing that what we see is caused by a bag of tricks, allowing ourselves to admire the power of these tricks, and knowing that behind it all lies the timeless extraordinariness of the ordinary that is capable of such wonders.

Navigating the numinous

The moment we enter the field of nothingness, fundamental transformations occur, and they are not easy to navigate. Sooner or later, we encounter the fear of giving up our familiar prison walls, and that comes with many painful feelings of meaninglessness, despair, pointlessness, forsakenness, absurdity, sadness, depression, anxiety, and panic. This is the phase of the forty days or forty years in the desert and corresponds to the aspect of the numinous experienced as tremendous (from Latin = ‘awful, dreadful, horrible’). It provokes terror because it presents itself as an overwhelming power causing a profound sense of disturbance as we realize how wildly deluded our sense of reality within the field of consciousness is. We experience a certain shrinking, a sense of inadequacy to cope with such an enormous discovery, followed by deep humility. In Shakespeare’s words: “Under it, my genius is rebuked.”

Once we have worked through the nullification of not only the world but also the self, the second aspect of the numinous presents itself as the field of emptiness appears. It is experienced as fascinating (from Latin = ‘bewitch, charm, dazzle, enchant, captivate, enrapture, enthrall, beguile’). We now find a sense of wonder, awe, and love, of merciful graciousness, and a sense of glory and beauty as an adorable quality. We realize the blessing, redeeming quality, and salvation-bringing power of our transformation through the three awareness modes. As they say in Zen, we find ourselves to be able to be ‘free and easy in the marketplace’, which means experiencing peace and serenity independent of circumstance. This break-out from the field of consciousness through the field of nothingness (“forget about his wretched self”) into the field of emptiness (“God’s world”) is experienced as deeply liberating, calming, grounding, enlivening, and healing, causing suffering to melt like snow in the warm sun of deep self-awareness of reality.

Coda

Through all that, the work of chopping wood and carrying water (Zen) or doing the laundry (Kornfield) begins. This is the lifelong task of living one’s life as an unending process of noticing improvement on our transformative journey through the three awareness modes, inspiring others, and bringing soothing, healing love into this world. The beauty in all this is that it does not require beliefs, gurus, churches, dogmas, miracles, magical thinking, or otherworldly imaginations. All we need is the power of direct, embodied, present-moment lived experience, examined by the shared subjective reality of psychotherapeutic, meditative, contemplative, and philosophical reflective tradition, and grounded by the shared objective reality of science. All we need to do is closely examine our minds, and reality presents itself to us in its full glory, from Golgi to God. That is the greatest miracle I can think of.

Copyright © 2022 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.

The Many Faces Of Aloneness

Like the weather shaping landscapes, aloneness pervades our psyche in ways that continually modulate its character. This topic recently came to be worked through in one of my psychotherapy groups, and as if by synchronicity, it also surfaced in the Mindsight Intensive during our explorations of unfamiliar modes of awareness we can access through meditation. I took this as an opportunity to try to put some order in this complex topic that elicited many questions from patients and students alike.

...
Read more >
April 25, 2022

Like the weather shaping landscapes, aloneness pervades our psyche in ways that continually modulate its character. This topic recently came to be worked through in one of my psychotherapy groups, and as if by synchronicity, it also surfaced in the Mindsight Intensive during our explorations of unfamiliar modes of awareness we can access through meditation. I took this as an opportunity to try to put some order in this complex topic that elicited many questions from patients and students alike.

Etymology

‘Alone’ (= al-one) is originally made up of the two words ‘all’, meaning ‘wholly, entirely, without limit’, and ‘one, only one of me, oneself’. Combined, these two notions mean ‘limitlessly just oneself’, or ‘unaccompanied, solitary, without companions, all by oneself, wholly oneself’, which by implication also includes ‘… and nothing or nobody else’. By the same token, ‘all, entirely’ also implies ‘all that is, everything’, meaning that when one is alone, one is also everything or with everything. The fact that the word ‘alone’ combines these two clusters of meaning, ‘all one and nothing else’, which implies an endless void around it, and ‘all that is, everything’, which implies an endless fullness of everything, suggests that the meaning of aloneness can correlate with several possible human experiences.

The resonant dance of feeling felt

Aloneness is both, an inescapable psychological reality that can be either painful or pleasurable, and an acquired capacity necessary for growth, health, and wisdom.

To begin with our psychological development, as infants we are dependent on adults to take care of us. Nature has made sure to wire our brains and bodies so that for the most part there is no escaping the development of a strong nurturing bond flowing both ways between child and caregiver. I am referring to the mammalian attachment system that in humans is based on a special neurocircuitry called the resonance circuitry or social engagement system. In brief, physiological and mental states in both child and caregiver resonate deeply with each other like two well-tuned musical instruments. This resonance causes both organisms to attune to each other and respond empathically to the other’s expressed needs. In this dance, each partner receives, registers, and interprets the verbal and non-verbal information coming from the other person in a way that ensures that the responsive action meets the other person’s needs. Like in a good dance, each partner feels heard and seen by the other as needs are being felt, shared, interpreted, and responded to in a timely manner that fully meets the relational requirements of that moment.

Our social engagement system that sings through the vibrations of our resonance circuitry is responsible for both, our relationships with others as well as our relationship with ourselves. That is the reason why in attuned relationships both partners can see themselves through the other person’s eyes, and learn to feel felt and be seen and heard. When we feel heard by the other person, we can hear ourselves, and vice versa. We enjoy access to the many layers of neuroprocessing in the body, from being somatically attuned to our body, to recognizing and regulating our emotions, all the way to being able to make sense of our life stories. The attuned relationships that shaped us become internalized, so that when we are alone, we are also with all these people who have shaped us in a healthy way – they are always with us in our minds. Applied to the child’s relationship with her parents, when a young child enjoys attuned relationships and therefore develops a secure attachment to the parents, after a heartfelt goodbye the parents can leave the room for a while, and the child will not only be happy and able to concentrate on playing by herself, but greet the parents with warmth and joy when they come back. At most, the child may be a little upset when the parent leaves, but calms down quickly.

With a well-developed capacity to be alone, we are present with ourselves the way we were able to be present in our relationships with our loved ones, and the whole world is with us. We don’t feel lonely, but deeply connected. Given the double function of the social engagement system responsible for one’s relationship with both others and oneself, when children have the opportunity to develop attuned relationships with their caregivers, or when adults later take the opportunity to do the same with their therapists, teachers, or mentors, they also develop attuned relationships with themselves. In other words, through attuned relationships, we internalize those healthy external relationships into the ways our own psyche manages our internal relationships with ourselves. In this way, even when we are alone with ourselves and nobody is around, we are in the company of these remembered internalized attuned relationships. This represents the capacity to be successfully and pleasurably alone without feeling lonely, restless, or stressed.

Of course, as nothing in life is perfect, that attachment dance is not perfect either. Occasionally the attunement process does not work properly, and we stumble. As long as that is the exception, and in those moments of stumbling we can apologize and repair the broken link, assuring one another that nothing fundamental is broken in the love bond, we continue to thrive. Such empathic failures of attunement are an inevitable part of healthy intimacy and ensure our capacity to be resilient in the face of inevitable disturbances life circumstances throw our way. This is the healthy situation of a ‘good-enough’ relationship, implying that attempts at having a ‘perfect’ relationship are not only impossible, but will inevitably fail and cause a lot of stress and disruption.

From the brain’s wiring perspective, attuned relationships result in increased connectivity between different brain regions, thereby maximizing the brain’s resilience and capacity for processing new and challenging life situations in creative and efficient ways.

The dance of attunement in the construction of a useful illusion

With healthy attunements in our relationships we are able to be fully creative and use time alone as an opportunity to fine-tune internal attunement and groundedness in one’s healthy sense of self. Through the cultivation of attuned relationships, we develop a healthy sense of self. Unable to elaborate on it without going beyond the scope of this article, be it just said that this sense of self is a construction by the brain that gives us a psychological centre of gravity from which to organize how we conduct our lives. As useful as this sense of self is to ensure our survival, it is nonetheless an illusion. Experientially established at least a couple of thousand years ago in Buddhist psychology, this has relatively recently also been scientifically confirmed.

To be precise, the successful construction of our sense of self occurs within the scope of our ordinary waking consciousness. Its hallmark is our experience of life as a duality between our ego-self ‘inside’, which we deem to be the observing subject, and an objective world ‘outside’, observed and experienced by this ego-self. To be sure, the successfully developed ego-self that marks the subjective pole of our dual world, is at the same time the healthy sense of self that makes us into a ‘somebody’ who allows us to live life competently in accordance with society’s norms of success. Once we have achieved the developmental milestone of having become a ‘somebody’, we can use it as the springboard for a transition toward existentially more evolved modes of awareness we will discuss below, through which we discover the illusory nature of our sense of self. Like the wizard of Oz, upon close scrutiny, our sense of self reveals its essential emptiness. Armed with an initially strong and well-grounded illusion we called our ‘self’, we can then embark on the journey of deconstruction and allow ourselves to discover its inherent emptiness and the surprising fact that at our core we are a ‘nobody’.

Imperfections of the dance of attunement

Life circumstances are not always very forgiving, and children often grow up without the experience of optimal attunement from their parents. We can therefore also internalize unhealthy relationships, and when we are alone having been shaped by relationships that cause pain, we are in pain. The painful quality of a dysfunctional relationship to parents becomes the painful experience of relating to ourselves.

The pain can be very different, depending on what went wrong in our formative relationships. We may have experienced absence and unavailability, leaving us with an incessant yearning for a connection we can never have or fulfill, combined with a deep withdrawal and disconnection from ourselves that mirrors the disconnection with the absent parent we yearned for. Such a child does not even acknowledge or feel the need to say goodbye to the parent who leaves the room in the clinical experiment. The child gets easily bored and restless when alone, and does not respond upon the parent’s return. The style of relating to others and ourselves becomes avoidant, rigidly cut off from our and other people’s internal world, body and emotions. We may also have experienced ambivalence and inconsistency, intrusiveness and control, leaving us conflicted with regard to closeness; we yearn for closeness, but closeness is disorienting, suffocating, or conflicted. This applies to both the external relationship and the relationship with ourselves. Such a child is clingy and gets very anxious when the parent leaves the room, and it has a hard time letting go. While the parent is away, the child is anxious and distraught, and when the parent comes back, the child can’t easily calm down, remaining anxious and angry. The style of relating to others and ourselves becomes ambivalent, as we experience our own and other people’s internal world as chaotic and overheated.

In all these cases, being alone is a painful situation, because we are unable to successfully feel at peace and content in our own skin. Our relationship with ourselves is fraught with disruption of one kind or another, avoidant or ambivalent, shut down or nervously restless, and we cannot see ourselves clearly. We, therefore, end up struggling to properly regulate our emotions and mental states, experiencing stress and restlessness, or a sense of scarcity and lack in life. When alone we experience loneliness and remain dissatisfied. Being alone feels stressful in different ways, either like being in an overcrowded market one cannot find a quiet place, or in a boring abandoned factory, one cannot find anyone to meaningfully connect with. Our sense of self does not feel secure, but insecure, always on edge or shut down.
From the brain’s wiring perspective, such unattuned and insecure relationships result in less efficient connectivity between different brain regions, thereby compromising the brain’s resilience and capacity for processing new and challenging life situations in creative and efficient ways. Life’s challenges are not met with ease and we are prone to developing symptoms of all kinds, from psychological symptoms of dysregulation, relationship problems, and addictions, to physical illnesses.

When catastrophe hits

Our attachments can be even more disrupted when we have experienced trauma. This is different from the less-than-optimal attachment patterns we just discussed that cause lesser efficiency in our brains’ connectivity. Trauma is defined by the relationship between an overwhelming event, series of events, or persistently overwhelming life circumstances, and the way a person responds to such overwhelming events, causing the brain to become completely ‘paralyzed’ or so overwhelmed that normal functioning becomes impossible. The need for loving connection and the reality of dangerous toxic assaults on the child are completely at odds with each other, creating an inescapable situation of toxic love without solution. In these cases, the brain’s wiring becomes not just less efficient, but literally broken to use a metaphor, to the point that different brain regions become completely severed from each other, incapable of communicating and cooperating. This is called dissociation. The likelihood of developing symptoms of all kinds as mentioned above becomes much higher and more severe.

Aloneness after trauma is a different experience from the one described in the first two instances of attachment disruption. This one is not just unpleasant, but it is a terrible aloneness based on a complete fracturing of our relationship with ourselves and with certain other people, rendering relationships not just more difficult, but variably impossible. Our sense of self never had a chance to be constructed in the first place and is so shattered that there is no real center, not even a constructed one to be found. Reaching inside means finding broken pieces of ourselves and others littered all over the place without hope of ever putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. Internally, instead of a sense of self, there is literally nobody to be found, a gaping void and abyss of nothingness with nobody around. From moment to moment, one never knows which fragment will predominantly respond to life’s circumstances and react to life’s demands by fighting, fleeing, or freezing. If one is lucky, one has compensated for this inner void by developing a false sense of self as a person that can more or less function in the world, but that false self, that mask feels very brittle and fragile, unable to contain the horrible internal reality of complete fragmentation.

The vision of a future destiny

Having reviewed various experiences of aloneness that depend on our history and attachment development, we now must also look into the future and the growth potential of every human life. Everything described so far belongs to an awareness mode we call the field of consciousness, which I briefly described above as the kind of ordinary waking consciousness we are intimately familiar with, and that creates a view of reality steeped in duality; we see ourselves as a separate subject in the form of our ego-self experiencing a separate world of objects. Within this field of consciousness, we engage in scientific research, psychological explorations, and philosophical musings, all in an attempt at improving our lives from its perspective. Many people live and die within this mode of awareness, without ever transcending it and embracing a larger contextual apprehension of reality by developing access to two further awareness modes, the fields of nihility (nothingness – from Latin ‘nihil’ = ‘nothing’) and the field of emptiness (which paradoxically is fullness). These latter two modes of awareness humans are capable of require at least special attention, if not outright training to be accessed.

It would be beyond the scope of this article to pursue an in-depth exploration of these three modes of awareness with their fields, and their importance for decreasing suffering in our lives. Instead, we will touch upon certain aspects pertaining to the fields of nothingness and emptiness that bring us face to face with one more version of aloneness we need to be able to recognize and distinguish from the previous versions we already discussed.

Busy singing and dancing on the sinking Titanic

The field of nihility beckons for example when we are faced with extreme situations that render everything we have so far known in life meaningless, such as the loss of a child, a terminal diagnosis, etc. It goes without saying that meeting nihility is one of the aims of mindfulness meditation – to die before we die, so that we don’t die when we die. When nihility raises its ‘ugly’ head, we are called to answer existential questions such as what the purpose of our lives is, why we exist, where we come from, and where we are going both within and beyond the boundaries of birth and death. This is when we leave the domains of science or psychology and enter the existential realm defined by the juxtaposition of life and death, existence and non-existence, things and nothingness. The moment we are born, death is closely afoot, ready to tap our shoulders as an inescapable reality – like the backside of the moon we never see and yet always exists as an inextricable aspect of the moon. This ‘backside’, or rather underbelly of existence, called nothingness or nihility, is the absolute negation of existence we are perpetually, unconsciously, and frantically trying to ignore by staying busy within the field of consciousness of our ordinarily lived lives. This effort of repression is not only costly wasting a lot of energy, but creates in itself a significant amount of suffering. We are busy making music, dancing, and sharing drinks on the sinking Titanic.

The moment we open ourselves up to the underbelly of existence, we first encounter the unsettling experiences of meaninglessness, absurdity, forsakenness, and aloneness that open within the awareness field of nihility. To make sure we understand this correctly: The field of nihility is an awareness mode we are customarily not familiar with, and usually avoid entering and developing, because it is unsettling and even scary, the way freedom is scary to a prisoner who is released after decades of imprisonment. This being said, it is precisely through a full surrender to the inescapable character of nihility that makes no sense from our field of consciousness perspective, that we break through the most profound illusions of our lives and find liberation beyond them. As the physicist Lawrence Krauss remarks in his book ‘A Universe From Nothing’, nothing is the fullness of pure potential, unstable, generative, and creative. The field of nothingness is quite similar that way, something you immediately discover and experience when you are trained to access that awareness mode.

Freedom beyond illusions

The existential sense of aloneness within nihility is very different from the horrible sense of aloneness after trauma. They echo off each other and can be used to inform each other, as long as we know how to distinguish them and ‘treat’ them differently and appropriately. Existential aloneness of nihility is not horrible, because the internal search for the self does not reveal traumatic fragmentation as such, but the illusory nature of the self’s construction instead. That is a big difference!

The aloneness of a non-existent self because of fragmentation is far more ominous and dangerous than the aloneness of a non-existent self because of the revelation of its illusory nature. In the first instance, one mourns the absence of something real and important that should have been there, but never came about – in other words not a loss, but the abortion of something real and necessary. In the second instance, one mourns the loss of a useful illusion, which as illusion appeared to be real and necessary for a certain developmental stage in our lives – in other words, the compelling awakening from an imprisoning mindset that unwittingly causes suffering like the illusory power of the wizard of Oz. Trauma aloneness feels like senseless nothingness without existence, while, no less vast and abyss-like than the aloneness of trauma, this latter aloneness of nihility is imbued with a hopeful, liberating sense of being shared with all that exists.

Obstacles on the path

The main gate to the Zen ideal of ‘being free and easy in the market place’ first opens into hell. Make no mistake, before we reach the promised land, we first have to endure the forty years lost wandering through the desert, the forty days fasting in the same desert, or the night sitting without moving under the Bodhi tree, and so on. The path to enlightenment does not consist in pursuing sources of light, but in bringing the darkness into awareness. The first order of business is to include the underbelly of existence in existence, which means integrating the field of nihility into our lives.

As mentioned above, that is easier said than done, thus the Christian metaphor that ‘many are called, but few are chosen’, or the Buddhist metaphor that ‘one has to want liberation more passionately than a drowning person wants air’. Metaphors always sound more heroic than the reality they highlight, but it is an honest question that needs to be asked – how we can withstand the deconstruction of illusions all the way down to the bottom of the ocean of suffering. There are no easy answers to these questions, which is why I have designed a whole intensive mindfulness meditation course called the Mindsight Intensive around these questions. Here, I just want to highlight issues to be considered around the challenge of aloneness.

We all start from the basis of the field of ordinary waking consciousness. After all, that is the awareness mode we grow into from childhood and consolidate during adulthood. Within that field, we have seen that we may have any of the three main attachment patterns and senses of self: The secure, insecure and disorganized/traumatic sense of self. Accordingly, someone with a secure sense of self will experience secure aloneness, someone with an insecure sense of self insecure aloneness, and someone with trauma traumatic or disorganized aloneness. Of course, these categories are not absolute and should rather be seen as signposts on a spectrum of experiences. Meanwhile, each category of aloneness has its advantages and disadvantages.

At first blush, secure aloneness is the ideal springboard into nihility, as the secure sense of self is the most resilient one capable of withstanding the challenges of deconstruction. Its main disadvantage, though, is the fact that people with secure attachments are the happiest ones that are most comfortable with life as it is, and they may have the least amount of motivation to seek greater wisdom beyond the field of consciousness.

Less comfortable is a life with insecure attachments and an insecure sense of self. Granted, these people are more fragile and often busy enough trying to be as happy as they feel they could be, which leaves less excess energy available for growth beyond the field of consciousness. By the same token, the motivation to explore life’s mysteries more deeply might be enhanced by this impulse towards greater health, making them often excellent candidates for the exploration of nihility and emptiness. In any case, what these people have to be particularly attentive to is the differentiation between psychological suffering within the field of consciousness and existential suffering that beckons to grow beyond it, because those two kinds of suffering require different treatment approaches. If they get confused, the outcome is not good and will almost unfailingly lead to more suffering, more symptoms, and more decompensation. Before they can have free rein to pursue transcendence, making sure that they develop a more secure sense of self is paramount. “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody”, Jack Engler wrote back in the 1970s.

When it comes to traumatic aloneness, the issues discussed in the previous paragraph are even more extreme. Plunging into the abyss of aloneness in nihility for someone with trauma, who has not done any psychotherapy, will almost certainly trigger massive, overwhelming anxiety and decompensation that is tantamount to a re-traumatization. The principle of focusing first on the development of a more secure sense of self is even more important here. With time, when substantial healing of the trauma has been achieved, the depth of the traumatic abyss of aloneness these people used to experience and may still have access to, can indeed become a boon as it echoes the abyss of nihility. No stranger to that depth of deconstruction, these people may sometimes have an easier time recognizing the daily calls of nihility most people routinely ignore. The trick, then, is to embrace nihility without falling into traumatic annihilation.

Coda

What this article tries to address are no doubt complex matters that require years of patient study, exploration and practice. Even though this text uses the path and journey metaphor that suggests a destination, this work is indeed the thousand-year human journey with no end nor destination. That is the mysterious paradox of the present moment, where the finiteness of time intersects with the vast eternity of timelessness. The being of the world is the time (becoming) that devours it. As we put one foot in front of the other, walking on the path to nowhere from moment to moment, let’s always remember the futility of lofty goals as we surrender to the one and only aspiration we may be granted to relish as we proceed – the joy of noticing improvement.

When we get used to embracing the inevitable reality of death as part of life and life as part of death, a deep sense of relief arises that soothes our suffering. Being existentially alone eventually leads to the realization of our home ground in the Great Life of real Being, our true identity as the being, vanishing, and becoming of everything. As we anticipated at the beginning of this article from the etymology of the word ‘aloneness’, while trauma aloneness has ‘nothing else’, existential aloneness entails ‘everything’.

Copyright © 2022 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.

The Enlightening Power Of Darkness

Creativity has its roots in the power of darkness. Orpheus may have been an extremely talented artist of very ancient times, but he also became a powerful archetype in the ancient Greek and Roman imagination. He was venerated as the greatest of all poets and musicians. As a hero, he visited the underworld and returned to the world of the living. He was an augur and seer who was also credited with several other gifts to mankind, such as medicine, writing, and agriculture.

...
Read more >
December 12, 2021

A meditative journey through the power of darkness

Creativity has its roots in the power of darkness. Orpheus may have been an extremely talented artist of very ancient times, but he also became a powerful archetype in the ancient Greek and Roman imagination. He was venerated as the greatest of all poets and musicians. As a hero, he visited the underworld and returned to the world of the living. He was an augur and seer who was also credited with several other gifts to mankind, such as medicine, writing, and agriculture.

The most famous story about Orpheus involves his wife, Eurydice, archetypally his Muse. At their wedding, she was attacked by a satyr, a mythical creature symbolizing raw and untamed creativity and sexuality. In her efforts to escape, she fell into a nest of vipers and suffered a fatal bite on her heel. Her body was discovered by Orpheus who, overcome with grief, played such sad and mournful songs that all the nymphs and gods wept. On their advice, Orpheus traveled to the underworld. His music softened the hearts of Hades and his wife Persephone, who agreed to allow Eurydice to return with him to earth on one condition: He should walk in front of her and not look back until they both had reached the upper world. Orpheus set off with Eurydice following. She must have been unsure of his commitment and sought reassurance on their way to the upper world by trying to get his attention, maybe even feeling more at home in the darkness of the underworld. As to Orpheus, as soon as he had reached the upper world, he immediately turned to look at her, forgetting in his eagerness that both of them needed to be in the upper world for the condition of her return to the living to be met. As Eurydice had not yet crossed into the upper world, she vanished for the second time, this time forever.

This archetypal story sheds light on the fact that creativity has its roots in the darkness of the unknown, not in the light of consciousness. No seed germinates in the sun. Creativity and healing go hand in hand because both thrive on multiplying connectivity within the embodied brain and between innumerable mindstates we are capable of. Fostering creativity and healing requires the courage to travel to the darkness of the underworld, which has generative and creative power. The deepest depth of the underworld is meaninglessness, forsakenness, and nothingness, the darkness of which contains the timeless source of all existence. It can never be brought to light, but only to flourish into its myriads of forms through our transparency towards the invisible and uncontrollable unknown we can only receive through openness. Eurydice is thus bound to belong to the underworld as the great muse and mother giving birth to the many facets of reality through Orpheus’ consciousness.

Mindfulness meditation is not just a technical activity, but like playing an instrument, it uses a precise technique to harness the creative power of its instruments, the brain, and mind, for the purpose of healing. How can anyone ever expect to penetrate the depths of our inherently creative healing power without walking through the shadows of the valley of death? The pervasive pitfall I see many meditators fall into is the illusion of being able to heal and escape pain and suffering from the comfort of their couch – without having to leave the comforting light of their familiar ordinary waking consciousness. The adventure of awakening is bound to begin with a plunge into the uncertain darkness of the unknown.

There is a scene in the Amazon Video series ‘The Great’, where Catherine The Great and her army commander in chief argue about going to war. This by the way reminds me of Arjuna and Krishna arguing about exactly the same thing in the Bhagavad Gita. Her commander (like Krishna, and by the way Jesus also in several Bible passages) argues for the importance of going to war: “I suggest going to war, not because of a lust for blood. I feel for the soldiers lost, but I also understand war is a place where men are found. They look at death, they understand life deep in their marrow. They are asked questions with impossible answers and yet find them. They embrace the dark in themselves, and so understand the light. And the country, well, it’s the same for it.” To which I might add: And your mind, well, it’s the same for it.
Then the dialogue proceeds:
Commander: “The war will define us!”
Catherine: “Not going will also define us.”
Commander: “I just know it is my faith, that battle. I have known it forever.”
Catherine: “Perhaps I will bring you a new fate.”
Commander: “Wouldn’t call it fate if there were new ones.”
At that moment a crocodile crawls into the room, a beast the whole court was looking for because it had attacked members of the court. People did not know what kind of animal it was and in their ignorance fantasized it to be some kind of mythical dragon with wings that had come as a bad omen for the fact that Catherine had usurped power from her emperor husband, who initially was a complete, ignorant brute. Catherine is trying to bring reason and compassion into people’s lives and the following exchange ensues:
Commander: “Now we kill it?”
Catherine: “No, not the animal, but we do kill the idea.”

This dialogue speaks for itself. The war metaphor is widespread in spiritual literature. Taking on the mind is the most difficult thing you will ever embark on, and it often feels like going to war against deeply conditioned, stubbornly tyrannical, and hopelessly misguided beliefs. To this end, we must turn away from substance and concreteness (‘not kill the animal’) towards the elusive nature of process and meaning (‘kill the idea’). We must also face the darkness to find the light, the way I have written elsewhere we have to face nihility to find the liberation of emptiness. This archetypally male war metaphor is as important as the archetypally female one impersonated by Catherine, who advocates for attunement, compassion, and reason. Surprisingly, war and compassion are the two sides of the same coin of awakening; both have to go hand in hand, which is why Catherine and the commander get along so well.

What if, as we do in the Mindsight Intensive, you could start simply, with a review of technique that allows you to go to war successfully, knowing your weapons and how to use them? How about learning the art of less effort for greater gain? Then, you would open your vista on the landscape of consciousness, awareness, and reality by having the necessary skill and expertise to properly examine your constructs and delusions. You then would gain access to three different awareness modes, the field of ordinary waking consciousness, of nihility, and of emptiness. You would proceed by first reviewing the sitting meditation process: Dynamic alignment and its four aspects; how to use the tools of intention, attention, and peripheral awareness as you deal with the wandering mind; the embodiment of the attitude of COAL (D. Siegel: curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love); describing and not explaining as you use the sensorimotor vocabulary to make sure you focus on conduit process rather than construct content; the intricacies of working with the breath and decontracting with each out-breath; and how to properly end a formal practice.

The Power of Darkness

As you master the technique, components of reality as revealed at first by the field of ordinary waking consciousness, later by the fields of nihility and emptiness, come to light: Pain and suffering; resistance; impermanence; spaciousness; duality and the nature of objects of the world and the observing subject of ‘me’. You would discover how the familiar field of ordinary waking consciousness is limited and biased towards substance, seeing the world as a collection of things, rather than processes. In this field you would also find the fundamental question ‘why are there things rather than nothing in the universe?’ You would be able to allow your meditation practice to lead you to this field’s limitations as you learn to embrace the inevitable dissolution of everything through impermanence – meaninglessness, forsakenness, absurdity, nothingness, death, spacelessness, timelessness, and namelessness, thereby opening your view onto a contextually broader field of awareness, called the field of nihility. Embracing nothingness is a powerful healer, you would discover, allowing you to take the last step towards the most encompassing awareness mode, the field of emptiness. And you would embark on this incredible journey for the simple reason of finding deep abiding peace and serenity independent of circumstance. How about that?

Copyright © 2021 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.

Mindsight Intensive Curriculum 2022

As opposed to person-to-person psychotherapy, mindfulness meditation is primarily a solo exploration. Because in both cases we deal with the same mind, brain, and body, healing principles of psychotherapy have to be adapted to the solo journey of meditation. This course provides an advanced, practical, and experiential mindfulness meditation training conceived to hold participants as close to direct experience as possible.

...
Read more >
November 22, 2021

As opposed to person-to-person psychotherapy, mindfulness meditation is primarily a solo exploration. Because in both cases we deal with the same mind, brain, and body, healing principles of psychotherapy have to be adapted to the solo journey of meditation. This course provides an advanced, practical, and experiential mindfulness meditation training conceived to hold participants as close to direct experience as possible.

Having access to at least four awareness modes (fields of consciousness, nihility, emptiness, and return), we begin by working within our naturally available awareness mode, the field of consciousness.

  1. The field of consciousness
    • Foundational mindfulness meditation techniques: We begin by making sure we have a solid grasp on the foundational techniques of mindfulness meditation: Alignment, intention, attention versus peripheral awareness, conduit and constructor, breathing, decontraction, COAL (curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love).
    • Polyvagal regulation: Instead of conceptualizing our experience as pleasurable or painful, which activates our danger systems, we learn to tune into and track the processes, by which via the autonomic nervous system our brain monitors what is going on both in- and outside the organism (called neuroception). This allows us to describe our experiences in a more neutral, objective and equanimous way in terms of the three polyvagal states of regulatory activation (ventral vagal, sympathetic, dorsal vagal).
    • Resourcing: The fundamental challenge we face in our attempt at living a balanced, health-promoting, and stress-reducing life is to effectively deal with the organism’s inevitable energy flow fluctuations from chaos and rigidity to the Goldilocks zone of integration. Nothing can be achieved if we are imprisoned in states of high activation or paralysis. In order to be able to consciously contribute to our organism’s regulatory processes that try to move it towards integration and health, we must know how to create a sense of safety by accessing the following resources:
      • Ventral vagal access: Learning to shape polyvagal regulation by not giving in to habitual sympathetic and dorsal vagal survival responses and instead practice patterns of ventral vagal connection, integrate it by consolidating awareness and access to the resilient pathways of the ventral vagal system, and connect in new ways to oneself, others and the world.
      • Attunement: Learning to notice and hold in awareness both resonance and dissonance in our relationships to ourselves, parts of ourselves, others and our environment, thereby respecting differences and cultivating compassionate connections.
      • Breathing: Learning to work with the breathing movement by familiarizing oneself with (1) its different dimensions: Non-interference, location of breathing movement in the body, in- and outbreath quality, breathing rhythm, in- and outbreath length, speed, emphasis, pauses; (2) connection to other parts of the body or the environment; (3) connection to the imagination.
      • Sacred place: Using imagination or memory to settle in a place that feels sacred.
      • Grids: Open or closed. Different grids: Body grid with body resource locations; grid within grid; light, antithetical, medical, ancestral resources, auditory grids.
      • Attachment: Orienting towards attachment resource that get precisely described; learn to hold parts within wise MPC awareness. Trusting connection with others, enhanced connection with the body via grid, sense of belonging to a sacred place, deeper connection with the Core Self.
      • Distress: Provides the opportunity for healing; the state of distress is utilized as a resource from which healing unfolds. Turn towards it. Use distress eye position to zero in on distress and bring COAL to it.
      • Personal power being: Using the imagination to conjure up sacred or spiritual beings of all kinds, including animals, angels, dragons etc.
      • Core self: Unconditionally loving, non-intentional Being Self, felt beyond the boundaries of the individual. Transcends space and time. Everlasting; pure consciousness; divine self; true, authentic essence separate from trauma history. Age regression technique. Core Self eye position. This dimension points to the field of nihility and emptiness explored later in the course.
      • Parts identification: Differentiating, naming and attuning to different energy flow streams as parts with roles for survival and thriving. Three basic ones (from both ‘Trinity of trauma’ by Nijenhuis and Internal Family Systems): Fragility or exiles, control or firefighters, ignorance or managers.

Once we are thoroughly familiar with these techniques and resources while working within the field of consciousness, we begin to notice its limitations and the need to access other awareness modes that are hidden from view and thus beyond what we are used to (transcendence). A hidden awareness dimension begins to show up as we notice signs of limitations within the field of consciousness. Accessing those awareness modes that are beyond normal, everyday waking and dreaming consciousness is in fact a major resource in itself. But because of the radical orthogonal shift out of the field of consciousness they require, we treat them as separate chapters.

  1. The field of nihility:
    • The dawn of nihility: Noticing the signs that herald its discovery, such as the existential hallmarks of absurdity and meaninglessness, loneliness and forsakenness, purposelessness, and death.
    • Path to nothingness – science and religion.
    • Negation and annihilation of all existence; relative nothingness; remnant of duality.
    • Transcendence
    • Default mode network; pre/trans fallacy;
    • Impermanence;
    • Transverbal and transcognitive awareness; knowing of not knowing.
  2. The field of emptiness:
    • Affirmation and nullification.
    • Absolute nothingness – sunyata.
    • No-thingness, no essence.
    • Non-attachment (as opposed to detachment).
    • Non-duality.
    • Verbal paradoxes; namelessness, timelessness.
    • Life
  3. The field of return:
    • After enlightenment, the laundry.
    • Everyday living and love.

To paint you a picture of this curriculum content, imagine going for a scuba diving expedition. Section 1.1 describes the instruments you need and how to use them. Section 1.2. tells you about how your organism reacts to diving deep into the water and how to safely regulate that. Section 1.3. explores the different resources you can draw on to deal with various challenges that may arise from both the environment and your body while you dive. Section 2 is the equivalent of discovering ocean regions that you have never seen before with life forms that defy some of the biological principles you are familiar with. Section 3 reveals how everything discovered during your dive hangs together in a vast web of interconnectedness. Section 4 is the educational activity you engage in after having returned from your diving adventure.

Needless to say, this is a huge curriculum that would require a few years to be fully absorbed. However, the Mindsight Intensive will provide enough highlights from each section to enable students to incorporate the learning into their daily practice, and further their skill to expand awareness towards the limits of the field of consciousness and transcend it into the fields of nihility, emptiness, and return.

Literature:
* = Easy reading; ** = challenging text, specialist lingo; *** = Very difficult text requiring in-depth study.

  1. ‘Polyvagal Exercises For Safety And Connection’, by Deb Dana.*
  2. ‘Comprehensive Resource Model’, by Lisa Schwartz et al.**
  3. ‘Religion And Nothingness’, by Keiji Nishitani.***
  4. ‘The Religious Philosophy Of Keiji Nishitani’, edited by Taitetsu Unno.**
  5. ‘How To Change Your Mind’ (on the new science of psychedelics), by Michael Pollan.*

Copyright © 2021 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.

The Dream Of Ordinary Waking Consciousness

The movie Escape Plan with Stallone and Schwarzenegger depicts an archetype we have to wrestle with when we want to examine ordinary waking consciousness. Stallone is a top-secret agent specializing in breaking out of prisons to reveal weaknesses in the prisons’ security. A government official sends him to the most modern and advanced prison that exists, an escape from which is supposedly impossible. He cannot see how he gets there. The official does not know Stallone and the prison staff does not know he is not a criminal. In other words, as far as he is concerned he can not be rescued should he fail to escape. His escape is brutal and he gets almost killed in the process. Of course, he prevails in the end, and what he discovers as he manages to break out of the ‘building’, is that the prison is inside a gigantic ship cruising the oceans – a totally different vista than what he would have expected.

...
Read more >
November 15, 2021

Examining ordinary waking consciousness

The content of this article is taught in a practical and experiential manner in next year’s 2022 Mindsight Intensive. Details of the curriculum can be found here.

The movie Escape Plan with Stallone and Schwarzenegger depicts an archetype we have to wrestle with when we want to examine ordinary waking consciousness. Stallone is a top-secret agent specializing in breaking out of prisons to reveal weaknesses in the prisons’ security. A government official sends him to the most modern and advanced prison that exists, an escape from which is supposedly impossible. He cannot see how he gets there. The official does not know Stallone and the prison staff does not know he is not a criminal. In other words, as far as he is concerned he can not be rescued should he fail to escape. His escape is brutal and he gets almost killed in the process. Of course, he prevails in the end, and what he discovers as he manages to break out of the ‘building’, is that the prison is inside a gigantic ship cruising the oceans – a totally different vista than what he would have expected.

Ordinary waking consciousness is quite similar to that prison, metaphorically a dream or sometimes a nightmare we cannot wake up from. Through the course of childhood, we are so deeply trained to live by it that our brain becomes wired to construct that form of awareness. It is so familiar that we cannot imagine, let alone experience the world in any other way than mediated by the characteristics of that form of awareness. Every time we wake up from sleep, and even in dreams, there it is, offering the world to us without our awareness of its biases and limitations. It is like water to fish – a seemingly transparent medium allowing us to know and experience life and the world without our slightest awareness of its hidden workings and limitations, without leaving much room to develop an inkling that life could also be possible in air.

Almost everything we experience is mediated by ordinary waking consciousness and dream consciousness. Whether awake or dreaming, we find ourselves within the most automatic of the three awareness modes we call the field of consciousness. By implication, whatever we try to change or improve in our lives, remains within the boundaries of this same field of consciousness. As I mentioned above, the field of consciousness can metaphorically be likened to a dream, from which we never wake up. When we try to find solutions to our problems, it occurs from within the limitations of the ‘dream of consciousness’. Granted, this field of consciousness has great power of discovery and is capable of opening up the external physical world for us in astonishing ways. New insights into the nature of the mind within this field have vastly improved our ability to alleviate psychological suffering. In psychotherapy, learning to tap into resources that contribute to the creation of safety as a precondition for healing is a fundamental principle of emotional growth. Nevertheless, no matter how clever we may be in creatively mobilizing available resources, they remain resources that are structured and determined by the laws that rule the field of everyday waking consciousness. Our solutions remain penned in by the field’s limitations as they draw on its elements to create new solutions, and we don’t ‘wake up from the dream’. If ‘waking up from the dream of consciousness‘ was a vertical movement of transformation, then finding solutions within it is more of a horizontal movement of translation. One may be satisfied with translation inside the field of consciousness, but for some, it is not enough, because no matter how many solutions one finds within the dream of consciousness, this field remains somewhat of an unsatisfactory nightmare from which one deeply desires to wake up. For many people, it is not enough to fix their daily problems while being left with intractable existential yearnings for which no effective solution can be found within this field.

Like the prison in Escape Plan, our human field of consciousness is remarkably ‘airtight’ and seemingly inescapable. True, many of us are intuitively called to something beyond this field, but we tend to ignore, misinterpret, or not recognize the invitations from beyond, even when they are in plain sight. We always fall back into the field’s orbit to find solutions. Let me caution you right now that the ‘beyond’ I am talking about is not to be understood in spatial terms, but more the way ordinary waking consciousness is beyond a dream, winning the one hundred-meter sprint at the Olympics is beyond my capabilities, or the calculations leading to the discovery of the Higgs boson are beyond my understanding.

There is a reason why this field of consciousness has such a tenacious grip on us. In fact, it is quite limited in its capacity to open the world to us, yet we are quite unaware of those limitations. Here is why we are such willing prisoners of it: Our organism shuns unpredictability. To ensure survival, it has to be able to map reality, predict what can happen, plan how to best navigate the expected challenges ahead, and react to circumstances in the most adaptive way. To achieve such efficiency, information that is being taken in has to be paired down to the bare minimum necessary, then processed as simply and efficiently as possible, and finally automated as much as possible to ensure predictability. The brain operates as a kind of filter that admits only that measly trickle of information required for us to get through the day. In other words, in everyday consciousness, the brain functions in a very constrained way to ensure efficiency for survival and take in only as much information as is necessary to make educated guesses and accurate predictions. Openness is not the hallmark of ordinary everyday consciousness, which serves us a precooked menu of well-engrained and time-tested adaptations that ensure optimal survival, functioning, coping, and procreating. Elsewhere, I discussed how our organism that functions on such autopilot is called an algorithm. This field of consciousness can be seen as a controlled hallucination. We have to remember though that survival is not the same as thriving, and for many people, this menu of adaptations only works to a point. But even so, when in pain we look for quick relief, and much of human suffering cannot be relieved through quick solutions the like our field of consciousness is good at providing. We then have to take Stallone’s challenge upon ourselves, and as the movie can attest, this can be a hell of a difficult journey.

What is the hallmark of this field of consciousness? Our entire life experience, in other words, human existence itself is always seen from the perspective of a subject in the form of our sense of self, and this self apprehends the world, including itself, as a collection of objects, things, or entities that have some kind of more or less dense substance. This situation where a subject is always pitted against objects and vice versa is called duality. Within this field, duality is inescapable. It is always you, the subject who is living in a world of objects through life experiences. This duality is encapsulated in the word ‘consciousness’, which from the Latin ‘con’ = ‘with’ and ‘scire’ = ‘knowing’ literally means ‘knowing with’ – the subject only knows with the objects, and the objects only exist to an accompanying subject. This is to say that I define consciousness rather narrowly as the duality-based field of consciousness we spontaneously slide into over the course of a childhood during both dreaming and our waking lives. Furthermore, this field of consciousness is but one of three fields of awareness I will discuss below. This implies that awareness can take different forms depending on which field we operate in. As I will show, the verbal, duality-based awareness of the field of consciousness we are accustomed to is by no means the only type of awareness we can access. The other two awareness forms, as we will see, are trans-verbal, and to the extent, imagination is based on the field of consciousness, they are unimaginable, while still accessible through direct experience. Transcendence then means waking up from the ‘dream of consciousness’ into other fields of awareness I will discuss below.

The psychologically-based duality of the field of consciousness has the advantage of creating an objective vantage point (the self), from which the world (objects) can be examined in great depth, but it also has the disadvantage of creating an alienation from ourselves and the world through the effect this chasm between subject and object has on our experience of living. In other words, the inescapable duality of our field of consciousness reveals a mechanical universe without meaning, from which we find ourselves alienated, and to the extent, we search for and find meaning, the meaning we find is always limited or broken by the fundamental faultline duality creates. This very fact is a major source of human suffering that cannot be alleviated from within the field of consciousness.

The processes by which we construct our reality within the field of consciousness are very resourceful and creative. Earlier on I mentioned the quick solutions to pain. For eons, humans have used material resources to make life better and to gain a deeper understanding of existence – nothing wrong with that. Recognizing the limitations of everyday waking consciousness, different methods such as psychedelics, holotropic breathing, sensory deprivation, fasting, prayer, overwhelming experiences of awe, extreme sports, near-death experiences, meditation, creative expression, sex, and more have been used to look for what may be found ‘beyond’. The sought-after experiences are the dissolution of the ego or the sense of self, and the collapse of a distinction between subject and object resulting in a sense of merging into some larger totality. This is what mystical experiences are all about, and they are felt to be deeply calming, reassuring, and healing. The insights these experiences sponsor are felt to be objectively true in the sense of revealed truths rather than plain old duality-based insights.

Psychedelics are now in vogue, and historically they have sometimes been used as a doorway to transcendence, which is the reality that emerges when we can break through the boundaries of ordinary waking consciousness (the teachings of Don Juan in Carlos Castaneda for example). Two crucial points need to be made here: (1) All these pharmacological methods intended to cause transcendence beyond the field of consciousness remain within it as they only cause transitory mental states that leave no more than a memory of such states and do not per se evolve into lasting mental traits. Once the agent causing the shift is gone, the party is over and we are back inside the field of consciousness we probably have never left in the first place. This means that true waking up from the dream of consciousness has not happened. (2) In the literature on psychedelics (‘How To Change Your Mind’ by Michael Pollan), their effect is seen to be a regression to more primitive, undifferentiated modes of cognition we experienced in childhood, and by implication, the mystical experience of transcendence is seen as a process, by which these early childhood mind traits are being revived. I agree with the first part of the sentence, in that psychedelics may well reopen access to earlier traits of childhood consciousness. However, in my opinion, these substance-induced mental states have little in common with the mental traits of transcendence achieved through intense training, practice, and brain rewiring. ‘Enlightenment’, as transcendent insight into reality is often called, is a permanent trait that becomes the foundation of our view of reality and is not dependant on duality-based field-of-consciousness maneuvers or childhood states of psychological non-differentiation. Insofar as transitory psychedelic-induced pseudo-mystical states are revivals of undifferentiated childhood mind states and thus preverbal, and permanent real mystical traits of transcendent wisdom are expansions of awareness beyond the field of consciousness and trans-verbal, by confusing the two we fall prey to a pre/trans fallacy causing confusion.

So, where is the door to real transcendence, to waking up from the dream of consciousness altogether? Why would one even want to seek transcendence and embark on the crazy difficult project Stallone portrays in the movie? (I am not inferring that in the movie Stallone is on his way to enlightenment – he is just the symbolic hero of an archetypal story). The second question is easier to answer: Because as mentioned above, transcendence is the ultimate source of peace, serenity, wellbeing, and healing independent of circumstance. Putting it in terms of resource-based mindfulness, I am suggesting that transcendence is the ultimate resource for our human journey towards less existential suffering.

As for the first question, we have to turn to a place we never want to go – pain and suffering. Suffering is the springboard par excellence towards an awareness mode that reveals the underbelly of all existence and negates everything in the field of consciousness. Everything that exists, once upon a time did not exist and someday will not exist anymore in that particular form. Existence is thus inextricably connected to non-existence, and yet our field of consciousness only shows us existence. That is a problem causing suffering because our very lives unfold over an abyss of non-existence we cannot help being affected by one way or another. Furthermore, those moments and times in our lives, when all sense of meaning slips away from us, only to be replaced by absurdity and meaninglessness when our sense of belonging collapses and gives way to a deep and dark sense of loneliness and forsakenness, when our sense of purpose dissolves into thin air and we are left with feeling rudderless and lost, and when we are faced with our own demise and death, all those moments are particularly powerful energy vortexes that beckon to move towards the radical shift into a new awareness dimension. These are moments that challenge the boundary of the field of consciousness and cause suffering if we do not know how to break free from the limitations of this field. Contemplating or meditating on the disappearance of phenomena such as breathing, thoughts and our mortality are gates towards transcendence.

From the two-dimensionality of the field of consciousness, we then find ourselves in the three-dimensionality of what Keiji Nishitani calls the field of nihility (from Latin ‘nihil’ = ‘nothing’) or of relative nothingness. We realize that all that exists, all that is has its origin and grounding in non-existence. This first step of awakening to a contextually larger form of awareness into the first dimension that transcends the field of consciousness is neither pre- nor non-verbal, but trans-verbal. Both pre- and non-verbal experiences are apprehended by the field of consciousness. In the field of nihility, our customary tools of thinking and cognitive representations can’t be applied anymore, and everything that exists, including all objects and the subject that experiences them all, is seen in a different light. Without being able to go into the nuances of different stages within nihility, although not yet completely overcome, the duality of the field of consciousness is seen as illusory. That in itself is freeing, providing a sense of a big weight being taken off one’s shoulders. Also, without the self-centered prehension of reality in the field of consciousness, our view of reality opens to vast hitherto unexplored spaces filling a much larger context, within which we find an expanded identity that includes the whole universe.

Settling in the field of nihility provides an intimacy of experience of everything that is unimaginable within the field of consciousness. Of course, this has to be learned and practiced. Being so used to experiencing life in terms of things that exist, starting to allow nothingness to be revealed in our awareness may seem weird, if not impossible. It requires an emphasis on aspects of meditation that are less prominent when we remain busily trying to change things within the field of consciousness. These include a more intense concentration on the non-verbal aspect of experience, which we call the conduit in contrast to the constructor of stories we concoct in every moment. In addition, we emphasize an orientation of awareness towards the void that embraces impermanence. After that comes the embodiment of an oh-so unfamiliar and therefore difficult attitude of surrendering to that void, allowing it to impact us in its mysterious ways it is impossible to make sense of. That will challenge our capacity to trust the unknown, often initially accompanied by fear. We allow everything to be just as it is with an emphasis on developing familiarity with the void – the ultimate getting out of our own way. Paradoxically, when faced with nihility life becomes immeasurably more vibrant. When we can rest in nothing, there is space for everything.

Let’s not forget that these painful experiences I just described as gates towards liberation are often misunderstood and misinterpreted by professionals working within the field of consciousness as symptomatic of a disease in need of correction within the field of consciousness, as opposed to an invitation to transform towards transcendence. Suicidal thoughts, for example, can be information from the awareness field of nihility beckoning us to allow for the separate ego to die and the illusion of duality to be let go, in order to create space for the larger contextual awareness of nihility. This would however only apply to someone capable of holding the thought of suicide in awareness as transformative energy, not to someone intent on taking it literally within the field of consciousness and acting it out physically by destroying their embodied existence.

However, moving into the field of nihility would be metaphorically like discovering for the first time the backside of the moon, or realizing that we have spent a lifetime staring at the head of a coin, never realizing that there is a tail. When we allow nihility to fully reveal itself, we can now at least see both sides of the coin, even though we are not yet able to see the coin as a whole. In other words, a subtle duality still persists. Overcoming that last vestige of duality constitutes the second step towards awakening from the nightmare of ordinary waking consciousness. Metaphorically it is the step of being able to see the coin as a whole with both its inextricably linked sides. This is a further awakening from the field of nihility into the clarity of the third awareness form, the field of emptiness (absolute nothingness) or sunyata in Japanese Zen. Verbal expressions about this field are unavoidably paradoxical. This level of awareness is called the field of emptiness because, in contrast to nihility, which is death and the negation or annihilation of everything, emptiness is life, the affirmation of everything through the nullification of any shred of attachment to anything. It is the ultimate getting out of one’s own way to allow for Reality to unfold and manifest without resistance. While relative nothingness or nihility is still an awareness field with a subtle duality, an object or a thing called nothingness as the ground of consciousness, emptiness is the realization of ‘no-thingness’. That means that there is no essence to anything that exists, and there is nothing that can be grasped and held on to, except for illusions. There is no duality left. To use another metaphor for those looking at this from the field of consciousness, the wave that is unaware of the ocean, believing it is an independent phenomenon unrelated to the ocean, and an individual entity that is subject to being born and die, is the field of consciousness. The field of nihility would be the wave realizing that it is transient, and not a separate entity unrelated to the ocean. Emptiness then would be the wave’s realization that moving ocean water is all there is, and that this is at the same time everything.

There is a further step to be taken to fully fulfill our human potential. Jack Kornfield evokes what this step is all about in his book title: ‘After the ecstasy, the laundry‘. In Zen, they say that before enlightenment you sleep and carry water, and after enlightenment, you sleep and carry water (implying that the second ‘sleep and carry water’ is very different from the first). Once emptiness is realized, even emptiness has to empty itself, the same way the German philosopher and mystic Meister Eckhart pointed out how even God has to empty him/herself to be fully revealed through humans. In other words, there are no laurels to rest in, no goal to be achieved (since a goal would be an object of the field of consciousness), and nowhere to feel you have arrived. The next step is to bring this realization into everyday life and allow it to inspire anyone willing to receive, including yourself. We could call this the awareness field of return. This is likely the 360-degree return T.S. Eliot also talks about in his last of the four quartets, ‘Little Gidding‘:

….. We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

‘Wherever you go, there you are!’ (Jon Kabat-Zinn), but at the end of this journey, finding yourself at the beginning again, everything looks luminous, inspired, and imbued by a lightness of Being that was unknown before. That is the act of agape love, without which humanity will not survive. Having come full circle, this quote from Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj may now make sense to you: “Wisdom tells me I am nothing, love tells me I am everything, and between the two my life flows.”

The journey through these four levels of awareness, consciousness, nihility, emptiness, and return, is arduous, difficult, at times even potentially dangerous, and requires a great deal of curiosity, rigor, tenacity, patience, strength, courage, and humor. It is not for the faint-hearted, nor for those expecting quick fixes. It is not glamourous either. From our field of consciousness perspective, we tend to idealize the archetypal hero successfully returning from the adventure of having slain the dragon, but as every soldier returning from the trenches of the first world war or Vietnam will tell you, the path towards heroism is brutal and scar-by-scar transformative. Not that awakening to the full context of awareness is necessarily heroic, but it is to my mind the most compelling journey anyone could ever embark on.

Copyright © 2021 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.

Magic, Miracles, Mind And Mindfulness

Around 1991 I took a trip to Bombay, Bangalore, and Uti in India. My mission was to have a closer look at Sai Baba, an Indian guru considered a holy man, said to be capable of performing miracles. Apart from his alleged ability to cause paralyzed people to walk again, his signature routine miracle was the materialization of ash called ‘vibuti’

...
Read more >
October 1, 2021

Around 1991 I took a trip to Bombay, Bangalore, and Uti in India. My mission was to have a closer look at Sai Baba, an Indian guru considered a holy man, said to be capable of performing miracles. Apart from his alleged ability to cause paralyzed people to walk again, his signature routine miracle was the materialization of ash called ‘vibuti’.One ‘paralyzed’ woman appeared once a week on his ‘show’ as she would be wheeled in a wheelchair onto the stage and after a few of Sai Baba’s hand gestures, she would ‘miraculously’ be able to walk. During my time there, I satisfied myself that he was a clever magician, who used his magic for the purpose of activating positive healing beliefs in his followers. In his research on the healing and toxic effects of positive and negative beliefs, also called the placebo and nocebo effects, Herbert Benson had long ago scientifically established what humans have intuitively known for thousands of years, namely, our psyche’s powerfully regulating effect on the organism’s energy flow. Beliefs can heal or break us.

Remembering my Sai Baba experience, I also remembered a part of me who at the time was secretly hoping to find evidence that the laws of physics are not always applicable. Many years and quite a few wrinkles later, I remember the power of the human imagination to want to transcend the shackles of physical embodiment by trying to find corners in the universe that suspend the laws of physics. The hope is that disembodied existence is free of pain, suffering, and death, and that we may be able to gain access to some mysterious corners of the universe where anything goes. Barring that possibility, what is left is the power of the imagination to disidentify us from the narrow self-definition as an individual sense of self imprisoned in a mortal body. For eons, humans have achieved that through art, religion, and meditation.

Coming back to magic, apart from being entertaining and delightful, I also have a curiosity and fascination about its deeper significance within the context of trying to elucidate consciousness and shed some light on what we are really doing in mindfulness meditation. Magic is powerfully awe-inspiring, and for a good reason. But to understand that reason we need a closer look at what it really is. I became particularly interested in the work of Penn and Teller, juggler and magician extraordinaire, and the whole body of knowledge around this art. Before I continue, let’s set the stage by taking a short break and watch this almost 4-minutes long video.

I suppose there are a few factors worth considering in trying to understand our fascination with magic. In magic, we watch something we know is impossible occur in front of our very own eyes. That in itself can inspire us to ponder the seemingly impossible in our lives as a way of broadening our horizons, examine our conditioned limitations, and fulfill our dreams. Magic activates our energetic potential in the form of beliefs that can challenge our narrowly constructed prisons about reality and inspire a transcendence of our limitations.

After a magic trick, we are left amazed, puzzled, curious, restless, almost like having a pebble in one’s shoe, wondering how what we saw is possible. The knowledge of impossibility is mixed with the experience of actual occurrence, and that tension between the two cannot be resolved unless one becomes a magician. Our minds can reach in different directions: As with Sai Baba, we may attribute to the person performing magic miraculous, superhuman, metaphysical, and transcendent powers, in which case we may also identify with the possibility of having such potential ourselves we could perhaps tap into. We may also marvel at the magician’s skill and simply enjoy the magic’s entertainment value.

Would miracles be as cool as we imagine? Somewhat, maybe, but not really as much as we may expect. Whenever people claim evidence of miracles, they occur like lottery wins – completely randomly without rhyme or reason. Besides, I have also never seen any credible reports of a reputable scientist’s presence, which could confirm or refute the miracle. Finally, when unexplainable things occur, and they do so routinely, we tend to loosely call them ‘miracles’, when in fact we are not able to grasp nature’s and the universe’s full potential. We tend to see the physical world as far too restricted in its enormous potential for creating the most amazing phenomena, and we also tend to misunderstand science as a knowledge discipline, when in fact it is a doubt and question discipline. Just because we cannot explain something does not mean it is potentially not explainable. Nature and the universe are simply so vastly more complex than we can ever imagine, that science can only grasp a sliver of its reality.

Just to make sure we understand each other: I assume that the laws of science constantly evolve with our growing knowledge, that they are inescapable, and that phenomena science cannot explain are either not yet explainable but eventually can be, or they are outside the method and purview of scientific inquiry altogether. For example, the meaning of Hamlet cannot be found through scientific means. By the same token, when events seem to defy the laws of physics, it is all too easy to dismiss them as miracles and thereby impeding our quest for truth.

Miracles can be defined as the unexplainable defiance of the laws of physics as we know them, and by assuming the notion of miracles as an explanation, one relegates the unknowable to the realm of the pseudo-knowable: “Oh I ‘understand’ now … it is a miracle!”, which means of course that one doesn’t understand anything more than before the miracle. One maintains the illusion of knowing while projecting it onto the screen of the unknowable, which gives only short-lived comfort and even mitigates the power of reality to generate states of deep insight and awe. At best, assuming supernatural powers from an external source can help us let go of narrow identification with a limited sense of self, open up and become receptive to unexpected influences that may be of benefit. Beyond that, by farming the magic of the unexplainable out into a miracle, we deprive reality of its real power to inspire, and ourselves of the opportunity to find truth, thereby allowing the unexplainable phenomenon to amount to no more than an unlikely moment of grace we have no control over anyway. To explain magic away as some kind of metaphysical occurrence is a form of intellectual laziness.

To my mind, the real power of magic is to be found in a very different movement of consciousness – in one’s grounding in the fact that it is skilled trickery. The implication is that our brains are skilled tricksters in the way they manage to fool us into believing what’s untrue and not seeing what’s true. We are so fascinated by magic because we know that what we see is impossible, and yet we experience it directly. In other words, we experience the impossible, which inspires our internal sense of empowerment. We know that the laws of physics are inviolable, yet at the same time, we are unable to see through the elaborate trickery, which in the end is always penetrable, predictable, learnable, and applicable.

The core idea here is that fascination with trickery, with how easily we can be so profoundly fooled, is in fact a fascination with our human nature and the nature of mind. Through magic we are directly confronted with how on a daily basis we unconsciously lie, cheat, swindle, deceive, distort, delude and create illusions – in short, magic forces us to examine our relationship to truth. More often than we usually suspect, our experience of mind is like the unexamined smoking routine Teller performs. Have you noticed how after having seen a magic trick, your mind keeps obsessing about how such trickery is possible? In other words, magic puts a pebble into our shoe of consciousness, making it impossible to ignore that ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’, and we haven’t as yet been able to figure out what that is. It is crucial to avail ourselves of this impulse to investigate when we begin to realize how much of what we experience is magic performed by the brain and the mind.

Human nature at its very core is ‘the Denmark’ we are talking about. On a daily, moment-by-moment basis we willy-nilly create both illusions and delusions we are unaware of, and then, both fortunately and tragically act upon them. Such is the nature of human consciousness and the way our brain wires us. When we act on delusion, things don’t turn out that well. As I have written elsewhere, we are far less the authors of our lives than we imagine. To a large extent, by the time we believe we are making a decision to act, that decision was already unconsciously taken beforehand by our organism. This is in part good news and ensures survival as we don’t need to think about increasing our heart rate when we run, the fortunate aspect of algorithmic automaticity. The less fortunate aspect is the ‘magic’ by which our bodies experience some kind of pain and we then completely convince ourselves of an utterly deluded reality such as having cancer for example. The way we can spin the most incredible stories that have no base in reality, and then be completely convinced of their truthfulness, is ‘magic’ at its best. Getting to see through our mind’s trickeries is magical in the sense that it liberates us from many self-imposed prisons of our own construction.

Meditation may sound superficially simple, but like Penn and Teller’s video on the analysis of the smoking routine, so often what we see is not what we see. A closer look at the art of meditating or the ‘meditation routine’, if you so will, reveals complexity, skill, and wisdom not visible through cursory glances. True, honest mindfulness, the kind of dedicated, serious, and skilled examination of mind that reveals the ways we create our life’s reality, is like magic – an elaborate awareness skill that leads directly to the core of human existence in an unfathomable universe.

We will never suspect someone of lying if we didn’t know about our own capacity for lying. Mindfulness requires advanced skill training in catching our own lies, and when like a scent hound we ‘follow the money’ to the crime scene of delusion, things get messy as we enter the regions of doubt, ignorance, and unknowing.  Lying has no respect for any rules of honesty, decency, morality, and justice, neither does our brain in its function of ensuring survival at all cost. When it comes to debunking the way we routinely fool ourselves, we need to know how to meet our internal fooler. Fundamentally, to unfool our own fooler is impossible unless we know how we lie, cheat, and swindle. The last time I personally checked, for example, something like 90% of my thoughts was simply unsubstantiated, even wrong, if not blatantly and shamelessly distorting the truth. This may appear depressing at first, but I know that this is part of our human condition, and when we manage to separate the wheat from the chaff and actually see the 10% truth within us, we have likely touched the holy grail of a worthy human existence.

Mindfulness can then be seen as the very difficult art of learning to hold in our hearts and awareness the experience of what it is like to be cheated. The basic question of mindfulness is to ask ourselves how we know what we know, what is true? As we sit on our cushion, are we really meditating? Who is meditating? When we concentrate, are we really stabilizing attention? Are we really embodying kindness? Are we really settling in direct experience? Are we really working with awareness? Is what we do really what we intend to do? Are we really … ?

By exploring the mind through mindfulness as students of reality, we are like scientists: We stand at the boundary between the forest of what we know and the vast frontier of the unknown. At that boundary, we don’t know what is true, nor what question to ask. We are completely in the dark and cognizant of how easily we can be fooled. It is imperative that we do whatever it takes to not fool ourselves into thinking that something that is not true is, and something that is true isn’t. This means being keenly aware of how much of a trickster our mind is. The process of mindful inquiry is like a sloppy meandering full of wrong turns, doubts, mistakes, and dead ends. You never know which path is going to get you to the right place, and tolerating mistakes is a central tenet of creating safety on the uncertain journey into the unknown. This is called experimentation. No guru, teacher, textbook, or tradition can ever be the ultimate arbiter of whether you are on the right track or not – nature is. Nature is the ultimate judge, jury, and executioner. If nature does not agree with you, you are wrong! In your inquiry, you have to make sure that your methods and tools allow nature to manifest in whatever way it can to give you the guidance to where the truth lays.

The magic of mindfulness teaches us about storytelling, assumptions, deceptions, constructions, the way we perceive the world, and truth – that is, if there is truth to be found at all! Once we reach the far shores of uncertainty and the unknowable, is there truth, or do we just find life manifesting itself?

Copyright © 2021 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.

Novel ideas and information on what’s  coming straight to your inbox! Subscribe to my newsletter now.