Self-Discovery Portal

Notes in Regard to a Technique of Timeless Realization

By Dr. Hubert Benoit, translated by Aldous Huxley from Vedanta and the West (March-April 1950)

Shortcut to the exercise
Similarity to Eckhart Tolle exercise demonstrating the difference between thought and awarness
Shortcut to commentaries by Shawn Nevins, Bob Cergol and Bob Fergeson
Link to: "What is Meditation?" on the TAT Foundation site
Link to "Common-Sense Meditation" on this site

Translator's Note:
Dr. Benoit is the author of "Metaphysique et Psychanalyse" ("Metaphysics and Psychoanalysis"), which was published last year in Paris. Himself a psychiatrist, he has attempted in this very interesting, but rather difficult book, to relate the findings of Freud to the philosophy of Vedanta and Zen Buddhism. And since theoretical psychology and abstract metaphysics are never enough, he has gone on, in the following notes, to discuss a technique of realization.

Of particular importance, it seems to me, is what Dr. Benoit says of the imagination as being simultaneously the screen which separates us from objective reality, spiritual and material, and the compensatory mechanism which alone makes tolerable the life of unregenerate humanity. If we lacked our compensatory fancies, we should be so completely overcome by the misery of our condition that we should either go mad or put an end to our existence. And yet it us because of these compensatory and life-saving fancies that we are incapable of seeing into reality as it is. What is ultimately our worst enemy is proximately our best friend.

It is interesting, in this context, to compare what Dr. Benoit says with some of the recorded statements of the Zen Masters of China and Japan. "Allow a flash of imagination to cross you mind, and you will put yourself in bondage for ten thousand kalpas." And this applies even to the imagination of ultimate reality. For the imagination of Suchness, or Emptiness, or Brahman, is just as much of a home-made impediment to the actual experience of that reality as is the most mundane fancy. By exercising oneself in the imagined tranquillity and perfection of the Void one may produce a kind of quietistic samadhi; but, for the Bodhisattva, such a samadhi will be no better than hell, since it guarantees the enjoyer of it against the actual experience of Suchness in the Ten Thousand Things, of Eternity within Time.

And here is an anecdote which I quote from Dr. Suzuki's most recently translated volume, "The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind":
     " A Vinaya master called Yuan came to Tai-chu Hui-hai and asked: 'When disciplining oneself in the Tao, is there any special way of doing it?'
     " Hui-hai: 'Yes, there is.'
     " Yuan: 'What is that?'
     " Hui-hai: 'When hungry, one eats, when tired, one sleeps.'
     " Yuan: 'That is what other people do; is their way the same as yours?'
     " Hui-hai: 'Not the same.'
     " Yuan: 'Why not?'
     " Hui-hai: 'When they eat, they do not just eat, they conjure up all kinds of imagination; when they sleep, they do not just sleep, they are given up to varieties of idle thoughts. That is why their way is not my way.'" [Take a look at the Ch'an Masters website from the Sources & Links page for Hui Hai's teaching on sudden illumination.]

In a word, the realization of Eternity in Time, of Suchness in the world of appearances, is possible only when we put away our all too human gift of compensatory fancy and learn to see Reality as it is. In order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven we must become not merely like children, but like animals – reproducing the immediacy and spontaneity of instinct upon a higher level.


The average sensual man is without the consciousness of the Self as a self-sufficient totality. He is unceasingly aware that something is lacking. He comes into the world bearing with him a negation of Self-consciousness, or a negative consciousness of self (original sin). Consequently all his pleasures are of a negative character; they are but the impressions, on the physiological or imaginative plane, of a partial and momentary appeasement of his sense of original lack, of congenital defect. If we study human sensibility from the point of view of the realization of Being, we shall find that it is pointless to concern ourselves with pleasure; for all that we experience is only the increase or decrease of a fundamental pain. Suffering is not an act of Self-consciousness, but rather an act of the absence of Self-consciousness.

But the absence of Self-consciousness is illusory. Man possesses everything needed for the existence of Self-consciousness; but these prerequisites for Self-consciousness are not in the right state. It is like ice and water; ice possesses the nature of water, but possesses it in a state in which the properties of water are not apparent. Man is of the nature of God, but in a state in which this is not apparent. Apparently he is not divine, and because of these deceptive appearances, his present consciousness is limited to a knowledge of appearances; he is not aware of his divinity, he is not Self-conscious. We can put the matter differently and say that he possesses Self-consciousness, but does not know it or have the enjoyment of it.

We see then that, inasmuch as it produces in man the illusion that he lacks Self-consciousness, suffering is illusory and deceptive; it misleads man and is the explanation of his illusory servitude.

But here an important distinction must be drawn between physical suffering and moral suffering. Physical suffering works on the gross plane of manifestation, a plane divided by the barriers of space and time. Here a part of the Not-I affects a part of the 'I'. This partial negation by a partial object is not illusory, since it does not negate anything real. (From the standpoint of 'being' there is no 'reality' except in wholeness.) From the standpoint of 'being' such a negation is not illusory, but merely null. Of itself and directly, it does not constitute an impediment to the realization of Self-awareness.

'Moral' suffering, on the other hand, works on the subtle plane of manifestation – the plane of images, unlimited by space or time. There the image of the totality of the Not-I (a totality which is merely represented, symbolically, by some concrete object) affects the image of the totality of the 'I'. Such suffering is illusory and deceptive; for it causes a man to believe in the non-reality of the Total-Self, divine, infinite, sufficient, non-discriminated. Hence it is that only 'moral' suffering constitutes an impediment to the realization of Self-awareness.

'Moral' suffering working on the image-plane is closely bound up with the play of the imagination. It is in the failure to master the imagination that human servitude resides.

The play of imagination is a necessary corollary of 'original sin.' Man is born with the potentiality of Self-awareness, but without the immediate possibility of enjoying it. (He is ice and not yet water.) He is also born with the need for this enjoyment – the need to become 'water,' the thirst for the absolute. Man cannot achieve realization (the melting of the ice) except by the most penetrating comprehension. The years which precede the full development of the intellect are a period during which man must accept his situation as a non-realized being. But man would refuse to go on living, would do away with himself, if this inability to enjoy Self-awareness were not compensated by something else – by some ersatz-enjoyment which imposes on him and so makes him bear his lot with patience. Man, one can say, is born head downwards, and he would fall into the horizontal position (which is incompatible with his true nature and therefore fatal to him), if it were not that a kind of gyroscope came into play. This gyroscope is the imagination. To use another metaphor, imagination is a kind of inner cinema-film which creates an appearance of Wholeness. This appearance gives man the consoling illusion of possessing true 'being.' Its only and irremediable defect is that it lacks a dimension and that, consequently, the totality of the Self and the totality of the Not-I remain unreconciled.

Imagination does not bring realization, but only the fallacious hope of realization. (In imagination, man conceives of realization as the victory of the Total-I over the Total-Not-I.) It is this fallacious hope that gives man the patience to bear his lot and protects him from suicide. In this way man finds himself moving in a vicious circle. Imagination assuages the craving for the absolute, but through the 'moral' suffering which flows from it, imagination constitutes the chief impediment to realization. It is like the case of one who scratches himself because his skin itches, and whose skin itches because he scratches himself. Imagination is not the primary cause of man's failure to realize Self-awareness. But inasmuch as it is the necessary compensation for non-realization, it acts, when the possibility of realization presents itself, as the bolt that bars the door. It helps a man to await the possibility of realization; but when this possibility comes, its automatisms hinder him from achieving Self-awareness.

The automatisms of man's physiological life are not a bar to realization. The impediment is created by the automatisms on the image-plane. This being so, the work of liberation must consist in an unremitting struggle against these automatisms on the image-plane.

This work must be carried out as a practical exercise undertaken at times when the subject can withdraw from the immediate excitations of the outer world.


The exercise. Alone, in a quiet place, muscularly relaxed (lying down or comfortably seated), I watch the emergence within myself of mental images, permitting my imagination to produce whatever it likes. It is as though I were saying to my image-making mind, 'Do what you please; but I am going to watch you doing it.' [See the footnote for a similar technique recommended by Eckhart Tolle.]

As long as one maintains this attitude – or, more exactly, this relaxation of any kind of attitude – the imagination produces nothing and its screen remains blank, free of all images. I am then in a state of pure voluntary attention, without any image to capture it. I am not paying attention to anything in particular; I am paying attention to anything which might turn up, but which in fact does not turn up. As soon as there is a weakening of my voluntary effort of pure attention, thoughts (images) make their appearance. I do not notice the fact immediately, for my attention is momentarily asleep; but after a certain time I perceive what has happened. I discover that I have started to think of this and that. The moment I make this discovery, I say to my imagination, 'So you want to talk to me about that. Go ahead; I'm listening.' Immediately everything stops again, and I become conscious of the stoppage. At first the moments of pure attention are short. (Little by little, however, they tend to become longer.) But, though brief, they are not mere infinitesimal instants; they possess a certain duration and continuity.

Persevering practice of the exercise gradually builds up a mental automatism which acts as a curb on the natural automatisms of the imagination. This curb is created consciously and voluntarily; but to the extent that the habit has been built up, it acts automatically.

The principle of the liberative method is now clear. Man triumphs over his imaginative automatisms, not by pitting himself against them, but by consciously allowing them free play; his attitude towards them is one of active neutrality. His final triumph is the end-product of a struggle in which his voluntary attention does not itself have to take part. (Such participation, it may be added, is incompatible with its pure, impartial nature.) Man rules by dividing; refusing to take sides with any of his mental forces, he permits them to neutralize one another. It is not for Divine Reason to overthrow nature, but to place itself above nature; and when it succeeds in taking this exalted position, nature will joyously submit. (It should be noted that the curb which is imposed by the exercise on the automatisms of the imagination is not imposed by the opposition of Divine Reason to automatic nature, but by the opposition of one pole of our dualistic nature to the other pole.)

During the exercise the subject, insofar as he practices it successfully, feels himself relieved from his fundamental distress. After the exercise he falls back into this distress, which may be momentarily greater than usual. The reason for this is that he has fallen back into his ordinary state of inner passivity, so that there is nothing to neutralize his distress; at the same time his imagination, curbed for a moment, does not at once recover its compensatory power. On the whole, however, the longer the exercises are repeated, the more the subject finds himself relieved of his basic distress.

The aim of the exercises is to deliver men from their ordinary condition of wretchedness; but they do not achieve this directly. Directly they achieve the progressive development of a curb on the automatisms of the imagination. Liberation will come – and will come abruptly – only when the construction of the curb is complete and is as strong as the automatisms of the imagination. At that time we may expect the ultimate neutralization which will reconcile man's inner dualism.

In this context it is interesting to study the state which, according to the Zen masters, precedes satori (enlightenment). At this moment the curb on the imagination has become so strong that it holds in check all the affective reactions to the stimuli of the external world. All the illusory significances which the subject used to attribute to things (significances which depended on his affective reactions) now disappear, and the subject is permanently divided into actor and spectator – but the actor has become unapparent. 'It is like two flawless mirrors reflecting one another.' No longer is there any distress (angoisse), and the subject experiences a kind of pure and total alleviation – which is not, however, the state of positive blessedness. There is now a condition of unstable equilibrium between the forces that delude and stupefy and the forces that tend to awake us to reality. The subject no longer has the old, false consciousness; but he does not yet possess the new consciousness. (In Zen, this state is called tai-i, literally 'great doubt.') Hence the subject who is in this state says of himself that he is 'like an idiot.' The screen separating him from objective reality has worn thin and lost its opacity. Finally, in response to some sensory stimulus, satori breaks through. In the past, stimuli from the outside world reached the subject through this screen and had the effect of stupefying him; now that they reach him directly they awaken and enlighten. The screen is imagination, is associative and discursive thinking. And it is this screen that separated the subject from objective reality and prevented him from realizing the absolute identity of the 'I' and the Not-I. ('The eye with which I see God is the same,' says [Meister] Eckhart, 'as the eye with which God sees me.')

The work of liberation cannot be carried out by one who is in immediate contact with external stimuli. It is not that I am incapable of achieving a state of pure attention in the course of everyday living; but I cannot maintain such a state under the continuous assault of my affective reactions to external stimuli. My efforts cannot achieve more than instantaneous flashes of pure attention. These infinitely brief instants fail to neutralize our basic distress. Indeed, my efforts may increase this distress by hindering the compensatory action of the imagination. Pure attention is a two-edged sword; if I succeed in achieving pure attention, I am working for my future liberation; but if I strive for it without success, I merely intensify my bondage. It is therefore essential that we should work upon ourselves only when we know clearly what we are doing, and only under conditions in which the work can be carried through successfully. [Editorial comment: this last sentence seems to set up a sweeping caveat, whose conditions we cannot possibly ascertain before satori.]

Between the exercises, as my training in them goes forward, I notice in the course of everyday life a certain spontaneous working of the curb which the exercises have built up. This manifests itself by the appearance within me of a certain 'active neutrality,' which runs parallel to my normal and natural attitude of passive partiality. This does no harm because it comes gradually, in proportion to my capacity for tolerating a weaning from compensatory imagination. It is in this 'normal' way that the exercise must penetrate little by little into the heart of life. We must refrain from making deliberate efforts to jerk ourselves into a state of pure attention during the course of everyday life. Such efforts must be reserved for the times when we retire from life into our exercises.

What a man can and ought to do in his everyday life, between his periods of exercise, is to undertake a persevering labor of theoretical understanding by means of his discursive reason. It is impossible for a man to understand that the exercise is well founded, impossible for him, above all, to refrain from making a direct effort at realization in the course of everyday life, if he has not uprooted from his mind, by patient intellectual work, all the erroneous ideas which have been inevitably implanted during the first part of his life – ideas of affective 'morality,' of a God and a Devil whom one loves or fears as persons, of 'spiritual' ambition, of a belief in the usefulness of direct struggle against one's instincts, etc.

This uprooting of erroneous ideas should also have made it possible for a man to establish in his life the most positive of possible compensations, involving the least possible distress, and poising himself in the best equilibrium of which his constitution is capable. This equilibrium will be achieved, of course, in the head-downwards posture which is congenital to man; but it is necessary, none the less, for the work of liberation. The man who is badly compensated and imperfectly balanced, is fascinated by concrete existence and is unable to absent himself from life, even momentarily, in order to perform the exercise. The intelligent man will therefore accept the necessity of finding his equilibrium head downwards; but he will recognize that this is not an end, but only a means. The Gospel tells us that we must be reconciled with our brother before we pray; the balancing of our being in the conditions of everyday life represents this reconciliation. This means that a man may have to work long and laboriously on his ordinary nature before undertaking the work of transcending it. It is in this sense, and only in this sense, that it may be necessary for a given individual to give up certain temporal satisfactions, if the procurement of these satisfactions must ineluctably be paid for by an increase of his basic distress. Asceticism has in itself no efficacy – at any rate where timeless realization is concerned. Nevertheless a certain asceticism may be necessary for the achievement of the inner state of maximum calm, without which the exercise cannot be properly carried out.


A friend, Bob Cergol, sent the following message concerning something he came across in The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle:

Here's one little interesting item I'd never encountered anywhere else that I thought was quite clever and profound and effective in demonstrating the distinction between awareness and thought:

"Try a little experiment. Close your eyes and say to yourself: 'I wonder what my next thought is going to be.' Then become very alert and wait for the next thought. Be like a cat watching a mouse hole. What thought is going to come out of the mouse hole?"

Having tried each of these techniques briefly, it seems to me that they are very similar. What's your opinion?

Feedback from Shawn Nevins

The Benoit exercise is certainly worth a try, and as you say, similar to many other techniques. Benoit's idea of combining the exercise with the use of reason (at other times of the day), reminds me of Mike Conners' meditation (which also had a two-pronged approach). [See the TAT Forum, and look in the archive index for the issues of February, March and April, 2001.]

Like you, I am doubtful of the sweeping caveats and prefer to use "warnings" or "possible problems" since we are all so different.

Benoit speaks as a man on the path, not one looking back upon his path.

Feedback from Bob Cergol

I was impatient reading the Benoit/Huxley paper. I can only imagine what Pulyan [see the Maximum Systems page for some quotes from the American Zen master Alfred Pulyan] would say about all the verbiage. Two things strike me from it. "The Exercise" is exactly what Tolle describes, but Benoit's instruction is more precise and he explains more about it. I see this exercise as absolutely no different than, and at the very root of, many (if not all) of the meditational exercises I've read about: "Zen breath," Zazen, Rose's "dispassionate observing of past afflictions," Maharshi's "Who Am I?" etc. They all create the possibility for that identification of the attention with the personal self to dissolve long enough for something else to "rush in." Just like it doesn't make sense to repeat "Who am I?" over and over as a mantra, but rather to find ever fresh ways of asking the question "Who am I?" I think this exercise would be a valuable technique to use, but it does not comprise the entire path. That leads me to the 2nd thing in the article which struck me as fundamental. "The work of liberation cannot be carried out by one who is in immediate contact with external stimuli. It is not that I am incapable of achieving a state of pure attention in the course of everyday living; BUT I CANNOT MAINTAIN SUCH A STATE UNDER THE CONTINUOUS ASSAULT OF MY AFFECTIVE REACTIONS TO EXTERNAL STIMULI."

In a nutshell: Benoit's exercise is an essential description of "the Way" and the other statement I quote is an essential description of "the Life."

Feedback from Bob Fergeson

Another great definition of the "Listening Attention." It's lately been an obsession of mine (I've started a booklet of writings that succinctly describe this: Benoit, Maharshi, Masters, and Rose quotes) to try to find or describe in the best way possible this very simple action which is the goal of all meditations. My own phrase, "The Listening Attention," is still the one I stick with. John Davis said that the highest form of meditation was "listening with the eyes." This is the listening part, to be aware, but not thinking. The attention is listening to whatever presents itself, but paradoxically, this in itself alters the view. It's strange, but only after doing an incredible amount of thinking will we place value on this: the result of not-thinking. I like what Cergol said about Tolle's little cat and mouse analogy, but think it could be dangerous. I can see all the people out there imagining they are a cat, imagining it's looking for a mouse. But the biggest problem I see with this, is that people will understand it, for a moment, then either forget about it (Ouspensky pointed this out, how we can be awoken by a trick, but immediately fall back asleep) and not put it into practice, or begin to think about it, discuss it, seek advice, etc. Anything but put it into practice in their day to day life. We love to tie knots.

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