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.

A journey through dreams in awareness and consciousness »