The hidden power of awareness.
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…”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.