When we are in a state of deep sleep we are not aware of anything. For most, if not all, of us we are only aware that we have ‘slept deeply’ (or well) when we awake and find ourselves refreshed by our sleep. But in dreaming and in waking we are conscious, albeit that the worlds that we inhabit in those two states can be vastly different. Thus, momentary consciousness (or successive states of consciousness) characterises both waking and dreaming, even if we cannot always recall what it is that we have been conscious of.
These are the familiar three states of consciousness. But in ancient Indian thought and philosophy there is said to be a fourth state, one which contains the other three within it. It is sometimes described as a state in which one is in deep sleep but is nonetheless conscious, a state that can sometimes be experienced in meditation. But in this state there are no objects of, or within, consciousness. One is awake, and conscious, but not conscious of thoughts or sensations. Some of the ancient texts that first described this state referred to it as ‘Brahman’, claiming it to be the origin of all that exists.
Ever since Buddhism as a system of thought and practice emerged in the middle of the first millennium BCE, there has been a debate about the nature of human consciousness. Many exponents of early Buddhism accepted the wider system of Vedic thought from which it had emerged, and therefore regarded consciousness as the fundamental principle of the universe. So much so that in mind or consciousness lay the origins of matter. The Buddha himself, however, appears to have been unconcerned with these weighty matters of philosophy and cosmology, confining his teachings to this ‘fathom-length’ carcass, the human brain and body.
Today many of us are likely to be sceptical about whether mind takes precedence over matter. We tend to prefer the notion that consciousness, at least in the sense of human and animal consciousness, is a product of brain functioning and that the brain, like the body of which it is a part, is the biological product of physical forces. As far as Buddhist dharma practice is concerned I don’t think it matters which perspective you prefer. The culture of awakening, as referred to in the previous blog, is worth cultivating whichever perspective you adopt.
But I also think it is significant that you can approach dharma practice from either an objective or subjective viewpoint and still arrive at the same place. Objectively, if consciousness is a primordial and universal principle, one which is inherent in human experience, but also in everything else, then the human route to our understanding of it must lie in an exploration of the mind. If on the other hand consciousness is more simply a product of physical, evolutionary, forces it is nonetheless the means through which our experience comes about; and what concerns each one of us more deeply than anything else is the nature and quality of that experience.
In practice Buddhism is not primarily concerned with objective truth. Of course, it evolved within the mindset of the Vedic religion, one in which it was thought that the human mind could be trained to uncover the deepest mysteries of the cosmos. But the Buddha himself seems to have made no such claim. Although it adopted aspects of the Vedic system (such as karma and reincarnation), Buddhism does not require one to adhere to these beliefs or assumptions. It merely requires you to want to reduce the extent of your suffering.
What matters in Buddhism is the quality of the experience that we have, and the way in which our self-centred approach to so much of what we find in the world limits our capacity to enjoy that experience. One has to stand back for a moment and consider how radical this approach was, and indeed still is. For five millennia philosophers and religious teachers in India have debated the meaning of truth and the origins of the universe. A similar debate has taken place in the West over roughly a half of that period. But Buddhism, at least in that original iteration of the dharma in Northern India, tells nothing about such weighty matters. It simply asks us to examine our own experience and the quality of that experience. Is it everything we would wish it to be? Is there anything that we can do to improve it? If there is, what would this improvement look like?
I think one of the key issues about the day-to-day experience of our lives is the way in which we often spend our time not in the present but in the past or future. The curious thing though is that the body and the emotions are always located in the present moment. I, in the sense of my body, am here, right here now. Sensation and emotion can be experienced only in the current moment. But I find that my mind is often located not ‘here’, where my body is, but ‘there’, in some recollected past or imagined future. We are very probably the only animal that lives in this way.
Of course, we might conclude that this fact is indicative of our ‘special’ status as being something more than ‘mere animals’. Are we not distinguished from our fellow mammals by being able to learn from the past and imagine possible futures? But learning from the past and planning for the future are not the real issue; they are valuable human traits and no doubt deserve to be consciously cultivated from time to time. But what is not of evident value is the constant inability to focus on the present moment when it is clearly in our interest to do so; or in our tendency to think about our needy selves at moments when there is no purpose to, or advantage in, doing so. To avoid the unnecessary suffering that this causes we need to bring our minds and bodies back together, to reunite them, to experience each passing moment as a coherent, unified human being.
This reuniting of body and mind is the essence of the Buddhist culture of awakening. Dharma practice is a series of techniques and approaches that assist with this project. And because it applies to each and every one of us it is both an individual project and a collective one.
But these are not practices which come easily to us. Rather, the thrust of our evolutionary heritage has been to locate selective advantage in worry, anxiety, fear, flight, conflict and frustration; to regret the past or worry about the future when we would be more content to simply abide in each moment that passes. In this way the survival of the species is enhanced at the expense of the individual human being whose experience is diminished and degraded.
This is why we need to foster a culture that promotes awakening, one that enables us to turn away from evolutionary habit, from a mechanical response to our ever-changing experience, to the reality of that experience. If we can learn to allow our experience to simply unfold, we will find that it is, and we are, already inherently perfect. The very nature of experience is to change, and the intelligent response, the response which minimises our suffering, is for us to be fully present, united in body and mind, as those changes arise, continue for a moment, and then fall away.