From Toward Wisdom by Copthorne Macdonald
Seeing the Unity: Identifying with Being
Meditation on breathing-connected sensations (the first stage of Vipassana) is the beginning practice in all three major Buddhist traditions: Theravadin, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism. Vipassana remains the central practice in Theravadin Buddhism — also known as Hinayana Buddhism. This Buddhist tradition emphasizes disidentification. In the Theravadin view, disidentification is all that is needed for liberation from suffering. The show, the melodrama of existence, is seen as unsatisfactory process. We humans identify with aspects of the show — particularly with mind contents and with the body — and this delusive identification, or "wrong view of self," is a primary contributor to our suffering. Liberation results from seeing at a deep level that there is nothing tangible we can call a self, that there is just this impersonal process going on.
In Zen Buddhism, Taoism, Christian mysticism, and the Advaita Vedanta tradition of Hinduism the aim is not only disidentification with the body, but reidentification with the ONE, with Mind-essence, with the Tao, with God's Being, with Atman/Brahman — with the ground of being, whatever the label. This is the perennial philosophy way of looking at the world. I understand that Aldous Huxley didn't originate the term, but his book by that name popularized it. The essence of the perennial philosophy, in his words, is this:
The ideal in the perennial philosophy traditions is to see that one's true Self is the ground of this world — see it intuitively, experientially, deeply. Once we have seen that, our task is to live the life of a person in this world — but live it from this inwardly liberating vantage point. In Self-realization, Nirvana (the cosmic medium) and Samsara (existence) are seen in their proper relationship as aspects of the cosmic ONE. Individuals liberated through reidentification are not dominated by, lost in, or controlled by the show of everyday life. Still, almost all are eager to make a contribution to it, to serve the higher purposes of the process.
Just as there are activities that facilitate disidentification with the body/mind, there are also activities that strengthen identification with Being, and with the process as a whole. One practice of this kind involves paying silent attention to the basic sense that we exist. This has been proposed as a primary practice by Vedantists like Nisargadatta, and by the anonymous 14th century Christian who wrote The Book of Privy Counseling, and The Cloud of Unknowing. Nisargadatta called it meditation on the I AM sense, meditation on the basic sense of being. The Christian author described it as paying attention not to how or what we are, but to the subtle feeling that we are. In this practice I make the object of attention the subtle intuition that I exist — not the form which that existence takes, but the primal fact, or sense, or reality of existing.
Early in 1980 I did a five-week retreat in my apartment, and devoted it to this practice. I found the practice highly effective. It helped create psychological distance between mind contents and the primal sense of identity, and led me to associate that sense of identity with Being. I will describe one of the key happenings during those five weeks — not because anyone will repeat it exactly, but because it illustrates the kind of door-opening event to which intuitive-stage practices can lead.
During periods of sitting meditation, I settled into, and got familiar with, the basic sense of self — that fundamental sense of existence or basic identity, the I AM feeling. It was a comfortable mental space, and the mind got quiet just as it had whenever I watched breath sensations for a prolonged period.
By two weeks into the retreat my mind had become very still and quiet, and I became aware of subtle changes in the quality of feeling connected with this experience. I noticed that each time I settled into the I AM mental space it felt a little different. I then noticed that the difference had something to do with where my attention rested, and how broadly it was focused. If my attention happened to settle on the chest/heart region, I tended to have loving feelings. If it settled on a muscled area like an arm or shoulder, then the sense of being, or self, had a warm quality. If attention came to rest on the stomach, it felt slightly heavy, in that "heavy meal" sense. If attention broadened out to include the whole body I experienced happy feelings, a kind of quiet joy.
One morning I started to play with this, moving the focus of attention around, and noting the changes in the sense-of-self experience. I gradually moved the focus upward, stopping to feel each sensation along the way — chest, neck, lips, nose. I continued to move awareness upward, little by little, until finally it was directed at the inside of my head. When I reached a certain point in this transition the body-sensation components of the sense of self disappeared. The basic sense that "I exist" became almost completely free of content, free of sensory modulation. It was close to no experience at all, close to a pure void, almost nothing — except I knew that I was still intensely aware.
I saw two things at that moment. First, there really was a pure awareness free of content. Second, since I had moved my sense of self slowly, gradually to where all sensation vanished, what was left — pure awareness — was obviously the true home of that sense. This maneuver had caused the last thing that was not "me" to fall away. There was nothing left but pure awareness staring into a void containing only that low-level visual sensation that always exists as a sort of irreducible background noise. Direct experience had confirmed for me what perennial philosophy teachers had been saying for centuries: The true "me" is awareness itself. The words of Nisargadatta again:
Those physical sensations I experienced when awareness focused on the body provided subtle content for the "I am" experience. But the nature of that content changed as attention moved from one body part to another. Only one thing was always constant, always present: awareness itself. When awareness shifted to an almost sensation-free place it became obvious that my basic identity was the one constant factor: pure awareness — that which remained when the physical sensations were not. The life-giving spring.
My earlier concept of unity was a unity of process. All the specifics in the universe were part of one big specific — the total process. It was a horizontal kind of unity. Now I intuitively saw another kind of unity, a vertical unity in which the myriad specifics were all one with the underlying general. It was the unity of interpenetration. The eternal medium of Being interpenetrated, supported, and allowed the everchanging message of form and function to exist. And my true identity was the medium itself.
I wrote: "The perceived world looks the same as it always did. It's just that there is now this cognitive sense that Being underlies everything I perceive. It's a sense of the depth of things, a sense of the attributes of things, of Being, of capital-S Self permeating the old view. Life, awareness, organic wisdom, and love are seen in a new way. They are no longer seen as isolated events, but as the all-pervasive reality poking through the illusion here, there, and everywhere. I sense the reality of the medium and its values in a way I never did before."
I reflected on my basic sense of being or selfhood always having felt basically the same whether I was four or 44. My subjective self had always felt ageless. I now saw that the real me was ageless. I was the same timeless universal awareness that had watched the cosmic show since t=0. For the previous 44 years it had been taking in the view through the Cop Macdonald porthole. The same awareness — identical in quality, universal in nature — also watched the show in countless other places. For the first time in my life I felt really close to animals. That was my true Self watching the show in the cat's head and everywhere else.
I also realized that I was more than awareness. I was the life that animates the body/mind, the energy that makes life possible, and even the mass involved in every body's structure. I was these and other intrinsic qualities of the universal medium of existence. I was the eternal ground of being in all its aspects. Existence, the universe — the whole cosmic show including the Cop Macdonald body/mind — was an ephemeral media event, a modulation of Being. I, Being, was the source of the cosmic show and its audience. I interpenetrated this ever-changing display and was its changeless foundation. I was the permanent medium; the universe was my temporary message.
I thought about humanity. We human beings were deluded gods, lost in the drama, taking the game too seriously — sucked in like fans watching a movie or a football game. Identification with the body/mind was the prison. Detachment. Mindfulness. Awareness. Those were keys to the prison door. Once we stepped through the door we could see that our true identity was the one ground of being that gave rise to the game. At that point we could choose just to Be, and watch — or choose to get involved in the game again with a caring detachment that allowed more daring and effective play than ever before.
As that retreat ended, the metaphor that came to mind was one of ascent. All my life I had been climbing a hill, and as I climbed, my field of view had gradually enlarged. I had spent time reading and traveling and having a great variety of experiences — and as a result, my view of what is had gradually become broader and more detailed. Since I never wanted to miss anything, I'd always kept my eyes on the ever-growing view of the valley below. Then, during that retreat, I turned around, away from the valley and toward the hill itself. Instead of finding myself just facing the hill, I discovered that I was now able to peer over the top and see what was on the other side. I saw that there was another valley on that side: the realm of Being. I experienced a sudden step-function increase in my appreciation of what there was to see and explore. I was not yet living in that other valley. I didn't know it in intimate detail. But I now knew beyond any doubt that it was there.
In one way it was like taking in a whole new view. But it was also like suddenly discovering an incredible unseen richness in the old view. In the old view — the science-based view — Being was unacknowledged, buried within phenomena. This older view was still there, but I could now see Being as a separate added dimension. I was beginning to see, as Lawrence Durrell put it, "Between the lines, between the lives."
An intuition-based flip to another way of seeing things — such as that just described — is typical of the sort of insights that mark this intermediate, intuitive, stage in the process of reidentification. When something like this happens you start to take the unitive perspective very seriously. Even though you return again to more ordinary ways of looking at things, you are never quite the same. You've been there. You've seen things from this other perspective. It's a bit like returning from a trip to New York or some other exciting city. The experience itself is over, but you don't forget what the experience was like.
Meditation on the I AM sense is not the only practice that weakens personal identification and strengthens identification with the ALL or the ONE; there are many others. I've tried several of these in my daily-practice situation, and found them helpful. Most would be called spiritual practices, but let's look next at one that doesn't have that label. It originated in the camp of Western psychology, and is called Open Focus.
Some years ago I read a book that prepared me to be interested in Open Focus. It was the reissue of a book first published in 1936 by English psychologist Marion Milner — written under the pen name of Joanna Field, and titled A Life of One's Own. It is the story of Marion Milner's inner journey. The part I found most interesting was her discovery of a wide-focus mode of paying attention. She had always perceived life around her in our ordinary narrow-focus way where attention is automatically shifted hither and yon by personal interests and desires. Then she discovered that if she could watch with no purpose to fulfill, or desire to meet, that she could not only pay attention to everything happening now, but she became completely happy. When she was in this open, accepting, wide-focus mode — watching her experience with detachment — she felt happy, connected, no longer alone. In the stillness that accompanied this mode she got clear intuitive messages about what to do, how to live. Her book spoke to me.
A year or two later I ran across Open Focus, and recognized it as a structured technique for attaining the mode of attention that Marion Milner described. Open Focus was developed by a Princeton, New Jersey group involved with biofeedback therapy. I sent first for their book: The Open Focus Handbook, and then for their series of cassette tapes. The tapes are designed to talk the listener into the Open Focus mind state: "a state of effortless awareness in which no one element of simultaneous experience is focused upon or weighted more heavily than any other part." This description was remarkably similar to Marion Milner's description of "wide-focus attention." But there was one important difference: Marion Milner just accidentally ran across this state, and for a long time she had trouble finding and entering it at will. The people who developed the Open Focus exercises had worked out a practical method of leading a person to it.
Another practice involving elements of both disidentification and reidentification is the set of exercises called "dis-identification exercises" by Roberto Assagioli, and described in his book Psychosynthesis. The basic idea is to repeat to yourself short clear statements about the existential situation — statements that make sense to you intellectually but which you have not yet fully internalized. The practice involves mentally repeating these statements, perhaps at the beginning and end of each session of sitting meditation, and whenever else during the day it occurs to you to do so.
Using Assagioli's basic approach, I came up with some statements of my own — using the terms and concepts that speak most clearly to me. I repeat to myself statements like:
I'm not trying to absorb someone else's ideas when I do this. I have known — first intellectually, and later intuitively — that they describe a legitimate way of looking at what is. I practice in this way to help make this perspective my ordinary everyday perspective.
Can you see the similarity between this practice and detaching from a scary movie simply by reminding yourself that you're in a theater, watching patterns of light on a screen? Whenever I'm in a theater and do that, the movie immediately loses its power to affect me. In my version of Assagioli's practice I remind myself that I — universal awareness — am situated in the theater of the brain, watching the informational show that the brain projects. Reminding myself of this reduces fear and other intense emotions. I realize that even if this brain should be destroyed, I-awareness, the true me, will still be watching the show in billions of other theaters.
This intellect-based practice probably won't, in itself, cause a gestalt-flip of reidentification. Still, it reinforces other practices and helps keep them on track. It's a verbal reminder of the reality that exists here and now, the reality lying behind the obscuring show of everyday life, the reality we're trying to comprehend — not only intellectually, but also intuitively and experientially.
Generosity is a practice that was strongly advocated by both the Buddha and Christianity. Christianity's message to care about others always made ethical sense to me. But I now see that there was more to it than that. Adopting an interested, caring attitude — and actually giving of ourselves and our means — is a reprogramming exercise, an exercise that leads to changed mind-habits, to new internalized values.
Acting in caring ways toward other people can move us closer to seeing the unity. Love is Being reaching out into the informational world — receptive love as interest and acceptance, and active love as compassionate, harmonizing, upleveling action. Practicing interest, acceptance, and compassionate action — even when done imperfectly — makes them more deeply real to us. Acting in these loving ways helps dissolve the illusion of separateness between the local self and the object of its love. Love recognizes oneness — if not explicitly, at least implicitly.
Closely related to acting in generous, caring ways toward others is thinking kind and generous thoughts about them. When we forgive others who have harmed us, and wish them happiness and the best that life has to offer, we are training our own mind to identify with other people — to feel less separated from them, to feel more closely connected with the process as a whole. There is, in fact, a formal Buddhist lovingkindness meditation in which we forgive ourselves and others. We send thoughts of lovingkindness to ourselves, those we love, and those who we have not yet come to love. Sending out warm wishes to others may or may not help them, but that is not the point. The primary reason for doing the practice is to weaken our own egocentricity, and strengthen our feeling of connectedness with other beings.25
A related approach is to practice looking outward in a more general way: To immerse ourselves in a study and appreciation of nature, for example. To develop a sense of wonder. To surrender to the greater wisdom, to what is. Albert Einstein advocated this broader sense of love as an approach. You'll recall his statement quoted earlier:
Einstein didn't stop there. He also gave his prescription for action:
We might call Einstein's way the way of interest. It is possible for watching or observing to be just a surface kind of activity. Genuine interest, however, leads to a penetrating kind of observation that takes us to deeper levels. Interest wants to go to the heart of things, to truly understand.
I've noticed that interest brings mental quiet with it. Interest is a state of mind in which the brain cooperates with primal awareness. Interest clears the decks, if you will. It stops the smoke screen, the garbage, the unnecessary, and lets awareness be aware, with few impediments. When interest is present the brain turns off competing mental activity, doesn't it? When we are interested, the brain does all it can to heighten awareness. We might say that interest is awareness with all the help a body/mind can give it. Interest has an active, curious, investigative, probing quality. It is awareness coupled with, and amplified by, a desire to know, to understand, to be clear about what is.
Interest is particularly beneficial when the mind gets interested in the mind — in its activities and contents. Most of us, most of the time, are unduly influenced by our self-images — often by the ideal self, by the person we want to be. We get so caught up in the image of the person we want to be that we lie to ourselves about the person we are. We needn't be ashamed of doing this. There is no "I" doing it. Our present programming just makes it happen. But it's not an ideal situation. We cross an important threshold when our interest in seeing what is — in seeing the truth beneath the facade — exceeds our need to avoid it and sweep it under the rug of consciousness. To put it another way, the threshold we cross is one of coming to love our small-s selves enough to be honest with ourselves. Or, in Gandhi's terms, it is coming to value Truth above all — or at least above our desire for psychic comfort.
To the extent we are able to explore this realm honestly, with intense interest and a heartfelt desire to know, we find that the very act of exploration changes things. In physics, observing the behavior of an elementary particle affects that particle's behavior. Similarly, when we explore some emotion or physical sensation with a keen interest in understanding it, we find that this deep exploration transforms the thing we're interested in. Observed closely — microscopically, acceptingly — it's no longer what we thought it was during those distant glances when we were trying to push it away.
When we are in a state of intense interest, and are not thinking, there exists a whole and appropriate responsiveness of the body/mind to the situation. When thought is out of the way, and interest is present, the body automatically acts in fitting ways. Interest stirs up latent energy which energizes both the watching, and the action that comes out of the watching.
Interest is both the goal and the method. It is difficult at times. Interest is never a lean back and take it easy state. It must be constantly renewed, moment to moment. It's never a tuning out. It's always an intense, still, tuning in. Acceptance of what is is an integral part of interest, isn't it? If I watch with interest what is going on in the moment, I am accepting it. If I turn my attention away in an attempt to avoid, I am not. Being interested — compellingly, totally interested — is being in the present moment. Practicing interest — making an effort to observe mind happenings with interest and acceptance — is the way to get there. We must love truth to approach life this way, to follow this practice. Yet if we are earnest, the practice will lead to an interest in all, a love for all.
Both Alan Watts and Da Free John have advocated happiness as a practice. Free John created a formal practice based on observations about happiness similar to the ones I made back in the "quiet mind" part of Chapter 6. Free John takes the position that happiness is our fundamental state. We don't realize this, however, because we are taught from an early age that we should only allow ourselves to experience happiness at certain times, under certain agreed-upon conditions. We are taught to seek happiness, or to seek those circumstances where — according to the culture's rules — it is right and proper to feel happy. The truth is that happiness inheres in Being and does not require any external events at all for its arising. Thus, we don't have to wait until the "right" external circumstances arise to enter the mental state of happiness.
The practice of happiness is founded on the observation that we are happy when we don't want anything. We are happy when we're in that quiet place of Being.
Alan Watts quoted Oscar Wilde as saying: "When I am happy I am always good, but when I am good I am seldom happy." It's true. When we are happy, don't we tend to be more loving and considerate than when we are not? When we adopt "good" behavior just because we think that we should, very often we are not happy. This all makes sense once we understand that happiness is fundamental, and that the Being place is not only the happy place, it is also the place of love, attention and acceptance. Thus, if we connect with this primal happiness we also become connected with the other aspects of Being.
Acceptance is a good example of this. Does it make sense to you that happiness and acceptance are almost the same thing? Doesn't remaining happy, no matter what, rest upon accepting, no matter what? If this is true, then we have a choice. We could practice acceptance or we could practice happiness. Practicing acceptance is a little tricky. Unless our practice is completely whole-hearted, acceptance can acquire a sort of stoic, grit-your-teeth, effortful, even self-righteous quality; that "I'm being good" attitude can arise. Such feelings and attitudes get in the way. By practicing happiness it's possible to skirt around this possibility. Being surrendered to happiness is likely to happen effortlessly. And once happiness has been allowed, acceptance is there too.
A similar thing happens with sensitivity. We could make an effort to be more sensitive to other people and the natural world. Or we could just accept the increased sensitivity that comes as a natural side-effect of being more deeply happy.
Happiness also brings with it what amounts almost to a protective shield against fear and other forms of reactivity. Happiness serves as a natural barrier to our own mentally induced hell in all its varieties. When firmly situated in Being's vantage point we stop pushing away unpleasant informational inputs and simply watch them.
The first step in Free John's practice is to convince yourself of what he calls this "lesson of life," namely, that happiness is a prior or fundamental state associated with Being, and is not anything you can attain by chasing after it. As he put it, "You cannot become happy, you can only be happy."
As I understand Free John's practice, it is similar to Vipassana, but Vipassana in which the whole body is taken as the chosen field (or object) of attention. When you do this the subtle emotional coloration that arises is the feeling we know as happiness or quiet joy. Putting it another way, you allow attention to widen until it includes the whole body, you allow the release of all wanting and seeking, and you relax into ever-present, ever-peaceful Being. The state in which you then find yourself is happiness.
Simply letting go of all wanting and seeking (surrendering the ego) leaves you in a mental space of unalloyed happiness. Ego will raise its head from time to time, stirring up wants of various kinds, but if you are firmly in the habit of keeping attention and the whole body sense together in this place of happiness, then wanting and seeking are just more stuff passing by.
Free John's formal practice has three elements:
Free John's many works deal with this practice, especially The Bodily Location of Happiness and the book he wrote under his former name (Franklin Jones) entitled The Knee of Listening.
The Open Focus, I AM, and Happiness practices are similar. I'm almost tempted to call all three the same practice — with slight differences of nuance. There are, in any event, several common characteristics:
In all three practices attention is normally kept wide — wide enough to include the whole body — and this keeps us aware of that basic sense of existence, or happiness. At the same time, it allows us to see all the "stuff" that the brain keeps churning out. As this practice is continued, awareness/Being/happiness is seen increasingly to be the primary or core me. And all that informational "stuff" appears increasingly secondary and superficial.