Common Sense Meditation

Common-Sense Meditation
by Art Ticknor

                     
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Everyone has a built-in longing for … well, check your own feeling and fill in the word or phrase that describes it best for you. I would say "completion." Or I might borrow Franklin Merrell-Wolff's phrase, "full Satisfaction."[1]

When a person realizes that no external pursuit or acquisition is going to provide true satisfaction, there's only one remaining possibility, and that's going within to find what one's searching for. Meditation is the process of going within, which ultimately leads to discovery of our real self – our true state of being – and the end of the feeling of being incomplete.

Going-within meditation involves backing away from faulty beliefs about one's identity. This requires becoming conscious of what you believe yourself to be and then looking for evidence that supports or denies those beliefs. The crux of the distinction between self and other, or self and not self, is the distinction between subject and object, between viewer and view. You're looking to know the knower, the subject – and anything that becomes an object of consciousness can immediately be disqualified. Since we're looking to know the knower, there's an obvious paradox here that can only be transcended if it's possible to go beyond relative knowing to a state of absolute being.

contemplative
Rest and relaxation are necessary ingredients for a healthy life, but to be a process of self-inquiry, meditation needs to be confrontational not restful. It also needs to be observational. Consider what a person may say when first asked what they believe themselves to be. They're likely to begin with something relational (I'm my parents' child, my spouse's partner, my child's parent, and so forth) or something they do (I'm a student, an employee, an employer, and so on). When reminded that those aren't self-definitions, they're likely to zero in on some variation of "I'm this body with its consciousness and memories." If they say: "I'm a soul" or "I'm a collection of molecules" it's going to be a long row for them to hoe, since they're afraid to face the facts of life and death and have buried their heads in the sands of wishful thinking.

Nobody wants to do the necessary work involved with self-definition, and everyone tries to find a way to skip directly to the expected reward. It doesn't come that way, though. Conceptually the going-within process is simple but ultimately unexplainable, since it relies on seeming accidents. Like learning algebra, for example, we struggle to comprehend what x, the unknown, represents. Sometimes the answer comes in a flash, sometimes it just becomes intuitively obvious, and sometimes the aspirant never gets it.

When we "get" the algebra[2] of self-inquiry, we realize that we're looking for the self – and anything in the view is not the self. Therefore self-inquiry becomes a process of looking. Or, to use a more neutral term, observing. We're constructed to look outward, and the farthest out we generally identify as our self is the body. Our common sense tells us that even without our fingers or toes we'd still be here, and that agrees with the self-inquiry algebra law that what's in the view is not our essential self. But if we consider the part of the body from the neck up, doubt comes into play. Doubt, by the way, is our greatest ally in self-inquiry. Would I still be here if my head were lopped off? We may not be ready to test that observation yet. But why does that question arise? Because we're thinking about thinking. In other words, when observation moves inward a bit – like retracting the zoomed-out lens on our camera – we become identified with thoughts. If someone asks us if we can observe our thoughts, we may say no. But since we can remember some of our thoughts, that's a clue that thoughts are being observed and recorded even though we're not conscious of it.

Becoming aware that we're able to watch thoughts may come as an accident – as when we're caught up watching a film and suddenly remember we're sitting in a theater watching the film. When it occurs, the lens of our camera has receded back a step. We know then that we're not our thoughts.

Feelings are entangled with what we generally refer to as thoughts, and since they're often sensed as occurring in various body locations, we may need to go through a separate process of detachment from identification with them. A little investigation into the basic description of how the nervous system functions will show us that we perceive a feeling in much the same fashion as we perceive a tree: something affects a nerve ending near the surface of the body, which causes a series of electrochemical reactions to travel up the nerve pathway to the brain, where a picture of a tree or the sensation of a feeling mysteriously appears in consciousness. When we're talking about an emotion type of feeling, some stimulus had produced a reaction that may then be felt as located in some area of the body, but again the feeling appears mysteriously in consciousness. In any case, since they're observable, we're not our feelings. What then are we if not our thoughts or feelings and not our body (at least not parts that aren't essential to support consciousness)?

An irritation that keeps us looking for what we are, or a conscious strategy that fills in the gaps when irritation isn't present, is necessary to maintain the self-inquiry as it becomes more abstract. We may try to skip to consciousness itself as our self-definition, but if we do so we'll need to come back to something not as far within – and that's the belief in being the decider in charge of doing. Symptoms of this belief are statements we tell ourselves such as: "If I don't make the right decision, there will be a price to pay," and "If I stopped making decisions, all action would come to a halt."

Generally we don't become aware of decisions unless there's prolonged conflict between various desires and fears. But if someone asks us, or we ask ourselves, why we did or didn't do something, we can often remember parts of a decision-making process that led to the witnessed results. The fact that we remember some of the details indicates that they're being observed and recorded even when we're not particularly conscious of it. But this indirect evidence may not be sufficient to convince our self-inquiry algebra that we're not doing it, that we're not the decision-making process. It may require an accidental retraction of the camera lens so that we consciously view decision-making as it's occurring in order for the fact to sink in that the process is observable and, therefore, not us. What does that leave then in our bag of beliefs about what we are? Are we ready to tackle consciousness itself?

If we define ourselves as consciousness, then we're faced with saying that we're something that comes and goes with the waking state and the dreaming state. This is liable to lead us back to our belief that we're the body, with its waking, dreaming and non-dreaming sleep states. But to believe that requires that we take somebody else's word for the body's existence during sleep. And other people, with their testimony, are appearances in our consciousness. Since we know nothing directly about their existence, they have the same merits as any other objects of consciousness – our thoughts, for example. No matter how believable, their testimony is not acceptable evidence in the court of self-inquiry algebra.

To find what we're looking for, which could also be described as ultimate certainty about what we are, we cannot rely on any external authority, no matter how much value we place on it. We must become our own authority. When we have peeled away the outer layers of what we once believed ourselves to be and are left with a belief in "this individual consciousness," we seem to come up against an impenetrable barrier. Is it possible to go any further within?

meditation
I can see that I'm not my thoughts or feelings and that I'm not the decision-maker or causal agent of my body's actions (since I can observe thoughts, feelings, and decision-making). If I'm my body with its consciousness, then I'm something that was born and is going to die. I have a feeling, which might be wishful thinking or it might be intuition, that I'm not going to cease existing – although I have to admit that I can't actually conceive of nonexistence. The closest I can come is to imagine a bodiless awareness with no sensation or perception, perhaps limited to endless memory replay or even witnessing a blank screen. Even the state of dreamless sleep is beyond my conscious imagination. So let me come back to consciousness as the only object of continued self-inquiry. What can I observe of consciousness?

Since consciousness appears to come and go, I can deduce that it's similar to a kitchen appliance. I can also inductively reason that something switches it on and off, and it has a power source that energizes it. Self-inquiry then might lead me to ask myself what is the source of consciousness. That very question latched onto my mind one time when I was on a solitary retreat. It stayed with me for a couple days, being the first thought on my mind when I awoke in the morning, the last thought as I went to sleep at night, and a recurring thought throughout the day. And an answer came to me one afternoon as I sat down on a tree stump in the woods. It came in the form of a simple vision or picture in my mind, where I saw that I was connected to something bigger than myself at the end of a long string. The picture satisfied the question, which then evaporated.[3]

Another clue about consciousness didn't occur to me until years later. The reason I was identified with the body and its consciousness, both in its dreaming and waking states, was that in addition to being conscious, I knew that I was conscious. That self-consciousness, with its associated fears as well as prides, didn't appear until a few years after the body's birth. So there are two observable facts: I feel or believe that I'm what's conscious – what's looking outward and is aware of the cosmos, the exterior of this body, its thoughts, feelings, decision-making, and so on – and I'm also what's aware of that outward-looking awareness. This second me is inward looking. I can say that I'm a composite of the outward looking and the inward looking, but that's at the conceptual level. At the level of observation, I'm one or the other at any moment. Either I'm aware of being what's looking outward or I'm aware of being what's looking inward (or maybe remember that I was just, an instant before, one or the other). Thus I firmly believe, although it may be hard to admit to myself, that there are two me's. But I also believe that to be nonsense, that there's only one me.

If you persist with self-inquiry, you'll arrive at a final opposition or contradiction in your beliefs about what you are. Continued persistence in the face of the seemingly insoluble final opposition will burn out or blow out the resistance circuitry that prevents individual consciousness of awareness. The power source – what you really are – has always been self-aware, and now by some mysterious discontinuity, the appliance becomes a conscious mirror of self-awareness.

A Practical Guide

Establish a daily meditation time. Establishing and maintaining a daily meditation habit may be your biggest battle. "How much time?" you may be thinking. How important to you is knowing what you are, of finding completion, of transcending life and death? An hour, for example, is 6% of a day in your waking life. What investment is pursuit of life's highest goal – with no guarantee of success – worth to you?

Self-inquiry meditation can be done sitting or walking. Lying down generally leads to sleep. It works best to find a place where there's no distraction. It may take some time before you build a reservoir of mental energy to make productive use of the time without becoming lost in thought for extended periods. As for any worthwhile goal, energy needs to be conserved from other activities and channeled into self-inquiry. Meditating after a meal is generally tough because brain activity is being affected by digestion. These are a few of the factors that you'll need to experiment with to find out what helps and what hinders self-inquiry.

When you begin each meditation period, remind yourself why you're doing it. If you don't remember your worded goal (to know the Self, become the Truth, or however your phrase it), feel the feeling that propels the search – the hole in the chest, the longing. Then recall where you ended up the previous day. A journal helps greatly so that you're not dependent on a memory that's subject to painting the picture erroneously. The journal should document what beliefs you have about what you are, which ones you've worked on and have seen through, and which one you're currently investigating.

Beliefs about what we are aren't all that unique, but typically we haven't tried to put them into definite form. Working with others can be tremendously useful in bringing the beliefs into view and in questioning them. The basic operation during meditation is one of looking. We look (or whatever sensory analogy makes sense to you) until the belief is verified or invalidated. Thinking about what you see and your feelings about it are more material for observation.

Finding the real self is looking until what's looking is known.

Work diligently for the beauty of working, but don't strain. It's a fascinating mystery to solve. Look with light-hearted curiosity. Look for insights into your behavior. Look (feel, listen, etc.) then relax. It's the most natural thing in the world.



[1] From his magnificent poem "Nirvana" in the autobiographical Pathways Through to Space.

[2] The word comes from the Arabic al-jabr, (the science of) reuniting.

[3] When my friend Dan G. read this essay, he asked me why it was a long string that separated me from my source. I hadn't thought about that before, but my immediate response was that I wasn't ready at the time to see how closer than close that source-self is.


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