In this post I attempt to explain the relationship between what we perceive when we look within and what we perceive when we look without. Contrary to what most people think, these two apparently separate worlds are in fact one and the same. The outer world is a continuation of the inner world, but the outer world is perceived through the senses and takes on an illuminated aspect, whereas the inner world is not seen through the senses but is perceived directly and is consequently dark in nature. To illustrate what is occurring when a human being perceives I have created the following diagram:
In this diagram, what zen calls the unconscious is shown at points U, and the five senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and sensation, together with the intellect or sixth sense are shown as six rings surrounding the “inner” unconscious. These senses look outwards toward the “outer” unconscious or external world. As already stated, the “inner” unconscious and the “outer” unconscious are one and the same, there is no separation between them whatsoever, they simply appear separate to the unenlightened person because this person has not unified the two apparently separate aspects.
Before I continue discussing the above diagram, I had better point out that the unconscious as zen calls it, is a real consciousness that sits back to back with our normal consciousness and our world arises out of it. It is possible to enter in to this consciousness, but because this consciousness is utterly passive in nature, our intellectual disturbance and turmoil keeps us from seeing it. We enter in to the unconscious when we fall asleep and the darkness we experience when sleeping is the unconscious just as the darkness we perceive when we look within is the unconscious. When we look within, we are looking at the sleeping state or the death state as zen would probably say.
The six rings, representing the five senses and the intellect or ideation, form the ego and the unenlightened persons foundational psychology and make-up. Because the unenlightened person does not perceive the unconscious, either inwardly or outwardly, the ego believes itself to be an autonomous entity separate from any underlying reality and therefore fear of the not-self and of death is engendered. The five senses look outward in the unenlightened person because there is no perception of real being, that is, no perception of the unconscious, only perception of the body and the impressions that the senses bring to the person through the body. The person considers themselves to be the body and it’s sensations and it’s associated thoughts which seem to emanate from the head. The rings in the diagram therefore represent the mind-body system of the unenlightened person, marooned in an unconscious that it does not perceive. From zen literature we have the following:
“The five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and sensation are the external gates, and ideation is the internal gate”
This statement confirms that the five senses cut off our view of the “external” unconscious and ideation cuts off our view of the “inner” unconscious. To the unenlightened person the outer world is entirely separate from them and is considered to be “reality”, this reality being entirely material in nature. They consider their own body to be an object in this material world and consider the thoughts and sensations produced by the body to emanate from an entirely material source. When they look outwards there is no perception of the unconscious. However, when they look inwards they perceive the unconscious dimly as an absolute and unfathomable darkness. The question then, is why does perception of the unconscious proper, elude the unenlightened person?
If we look at the diagram we can see that the intellect sits on the inner ring. It’s activity, constantly stimulated by the impressions it receives from five senses acts as a kind of barrier or layer or fog between the ego and the inner unconscious perception. It is this self-created layer that blinds the unenlightened person to the unconscious and to their real identity. The intellect is fascinated by the outer world as perceived by the senses and revels in it. It’s attention is wholly outward and it considers the inner perception of darkness to be an interesting but unfathomable novelty and hence it ignores it.
If this barrier of the ego, kept alive by constant ideation, could be overstepped, then the person would be plunged in to the unconscious and since the unconscious exists not only within, but exists without also, they would immediately perceive this mythical “oneness” and “emptiness” that buddhism and zen buddhism constantly refer to. Perception of the “inner” unconscious automatically means perception of the “outer” unconscious, because they are one and the same entity. The unconscious is a continuum, a real form of consciousness, sitting behind our normal consciousness and illuminating the world and our bodies and our minds. Without it, there is no world, there is no body, there are no senses and there is no ideation. Everything depends upon it.
When a person manages to overstep the ego layer and perceives the unconscious, the self-identification with the ego vanishes. Since, the ego is the amalgamation of the five senses and ideation, the senses are now viewed from a new perspective and the intellect is perceived as an outgrowth of the unconscious. The senses become objects within the field of the unconscious and the unconscious can roam the senses as if they were objects rather than being the person themselves. The enlightened person emancipates themselves from the perception of being as a physical thing and perceives all things as existing within emptiness or mind itself. This is what Christ was referring to when he said:
“When thine eye is one, you will be filled with light”
Looking again at the diagram, it is easy to see why zen has no use for intellection and abstraction. If the intellect creates along with the senses the idea of a being separate from the unconscious, then the intellect is a problem. The more one engages in abstract thinking, the more one imprisons oneself on the conscious side of the dualism, because the very act of thinking feeds identification with the ego and prevents identification with the unconscious. The ego develops endless habits and addictions and desires and we end up a plaything of our thoughts and emotions. This is why the teacher Richard Rose asked the question “Are you a robot”? He meant, are you a reactive being who can’t really get a grip on themselves and is pulled this way and that by all the psychological manifestations of the mind-body system.
We only have to observe the behavior of the extreme egotist to realise that people can become monsters with no self-awareness or insight. They are like robots who dance to the tune of their conceived ideas about themselves. In the extreme egotist we recognise the conceit that drives their behaviour and consider it undesirable, but there is an element of this in all of us. I do not mean that ordinary people are bad people, but we must recognise that an aspect of human nature is to constantly affirm ourselves and grasp at things. We have a tendency to pretend to be something, but that is driven by an insecurity that exists as a result of not perceiving our real nature. We fear the not-self because we think it is separate from us.
How then, do we overcome this identification with the mind-body system that creates this impression of a separated identity within reality? It is a difficult problem because the mind-body system or ego is extremely adept at hiding it’s existence. If the intellect and it’s associated ideation is the driving force behind the maintenance of the ego system, we could for example simply say “why not extirpate all thought”? The problem with this is that if we manage to suppress our thoughts to the extent that no thoughts arise within our head, the ego simply moves it’s position and becomes the observer of the silent mind. It sits there with the implicit thought “now I have silenced my mind”. It may not voice the thought but it is there in the background. If we recognise this and then say, ok, I’m going extirpate the background thought, we tend to find that the ego switches position again and becomes the observer of this process. This game of switching position can go on indefinitely. It is a major problem and difficulty. So how do we escape this problem?
The zen masters of old were well aware of this aspect of the ego and as a result they developed clever and subtle ways of outwitting the ego. These methods tend to revolve around the idea of setting the attention on nothing and we can see many variations on this idea. Here are a few examples:
Set the attention on nothing.
From the first not a thing is.
Let nothing matter.
Think solely of enlightenment.
Describe the colour blue.
All of these sayings, when practiced properly have the same meaning as “set the attention on nothing”. For example if we repeat the phrase “from the first not a thing is”, it tends to produce a blankness of mind where the attention flows outward and attaches to nothing. The phrase is designed to give the mind nothing to stand upon. In this way we bypass the ego because the attention is not set upon our thoughts or our self, but is set upon nothing. When the attention is truly set upon nothing we find thoughts naturally dissipate because the attention is no longer on the mind-body system. The ego is transcended and ideation ceases, The mind-body system is the generator of our incessant thinking. By getting the attention off the mind-body system and set on nothing we can bypass it’s negative effects and enter in to a perception of the unconscious. Over time, as the thoughts subside, the egotistical pressure disappears and we are plunged in to the unconscious.
I will now suggest a meditation technique that will help in the practice of setting the attention on nothing and which has other benefits related to producing solidity in our psyche and perceiving that the unconscious we see when we look within, also extends to the external world:
Close your eyes and look within. Acquaint yourself with the internal darkness for a few minutes.
Now, while keeping your eyes closed, turn your attention to the external world. Try to “see” the external world in the darkness. Most people have a dim awareness of the room they are sitting in when they close their eyes.
Look in to this awareness. Try to make your view of the external world as wide as possible. Make it three dimensional and spherical in nature. Relax, but make the attention rock solid. Attention should be fixed upon the external view with a one pointed concentration.
When this state is achieved, the attention will be “set upon nothing” by virtue of the fact that the attention is directed widely, rather than directed at a specific point. This wide attention facilitates a “letting go” of the mind, because the mind is allowed to flow outward. The unenlightened mind fixates upon the particular and imprisons itself in the particular. The enlightened mind fixates upon nothing, nothing being the wide spherical view of reality. This kind of attention substantially reduces the ego’s ability to constantly interfere in things. The ego can be “locked out” with a generally directed attention. This really constitutes the ability to “shine”.
What we are also doing with this technique is uniting the apparently separate “internal” and “external” unconscious perceptions, whilst simultaneously setting the attention essentially upon nothing and producing great solidity of mind. This solidity of mind is essential to the enlightenment process. This is why zen talks of being “solid like a diamond”. This process may feel onerous if the attention is very solidly fixed, but that is natural initially. The ego will attempt to draw you back in to itself at every opportunity. Do not fight the pain, do not engage in analysis of the pain, simply live the pain. The more painful it gets, the more you live it and embrace it. The pain is really the agony of self-sacrifice as one let’s the mind free itself from the constraints of the ego’s particularism. Live the pain and sacrifice yourself to it. If you make the sacrifice it will eventually subside, but it will take time. It is really the process of death of the ego. The ego, deprived of particularism, goes slowly to it’s death. Don’t worry if you don’t experience this pain, just keep up the practice until you notice your mind taking on a greater solidity and then redouble your efforts.
In your daily life constantly practice setting the attention on nothing. Hopefully these two practices will become mutually reinforcing. When you set your attention on nothing, do it with a spirit of joy and self-sacrifice, otherwise it will be more difficult to maintain. You have to learn to love the sacrifice.
All the best with your efforts!