I have avoided wading into the thicket of consciousness. We consider it such a central part of our identity, it is astonishing how little we understand it. As far as I can see, consciousness studies are a mess. We can’t even seem to agree on a definition of the word, much less understand how it works or what it is for. But it comes up over and over whenever you want to try to understand why humans behave the way they do. So I am wading in, even though I do not understand consciousness any better than anyone else. Continue reading “What Is Consciousness?”
When I was a college undergraduate, I studied the theoretical underpinnings of Freudian psychoanalysis with J. Giles Milhaven, a former Jesuit priest and professor of religious studies at Brown University. One of the central concepts that I took away from my studies with Dr. Milhaven was the therapeutic necessity of what he called “breaking the frame.” His belief was that problems in human relationships come mainly from the way that we frame those relationships; the belief structures that we build around our relationships to make sense out of them and align them with our own needs and desires. Not all of our frames are dysfunctional. But when our framing stories are too far out of alignment with reality, we expend useless energy trying to force the world back into our frame, instead of allowing our frame to adjust to reality. This is the source of much of our distress: our framing of reality is out of step with reality itself yet we remain committed to our frame.
Our frames are intimately intertwined with our sense of who we are. To dissolve one of our essential frames is to lose our sense of self. We are so committed to our mental frameworks, that we usually fight like hell in defense of the frame, even as it diverges further and further from the truth. In those cases where our commitment to our frame is absolute, the only solution is for something outside of us, some person, some situation, some unexpected force, to break the frame. Something has to happen that exposes the false frame, allows it to be seen at last for what it is. Not reality; merely a way of interpreting reality. Not the self; merely a story about the self. Not the other; merely an image of the other.
This is not an easy thing to go through. We pin our sense of security, our sense of identity, on our mental frameworks. When the frame is broken, we feel truly lost for a time. This is well known to everyone who has lost anything that helped define our life: losing our health, losing a job around which we organized our life, losing someone we love, discovering that someone we trusted has been deceiving us; discovering that the system that supports us abuses others. The loss is hard enough, but the disorientation that comes with the breaking of the frame can be completely debilitating. We resist this disorientation, so we can carry on for years beyond the point at which we receive the first clues that our framing story is out of alignment with the truth. We resist and resist and resist the loss of the frame, because along with the frame goes a solid sense of identity. The frame is the boundary of the self. Without the familiar frame, who am I?
My work with Giles Milhaven was very influential. A lot of my frames have broken over the years, and it has never been easy. But I also have seen that ultimately it is healthier to stay in touch with reality than it is to carry on in conflict. It is easier to have a fluid and adaptable sense of self, than it is to have a rigid and fixed identity that is in conflict with the living world.
And I have seen that the framing of reality is not only something that happens in the individual; it happens to entire cultures, especially now when so much information is channeled through mass media and shared by millions of people almost simultaneously. When a distorted frame is shared, it becomes more and more possible for us to participate in mass delusion. It is hard enough to break the individual frame. It is even harder to break the societal frame, because we seem to be wired to conform to societal norms. We prefer to do what our peers are doing, to think the way our peers are thinking, to care about the things that we perceive our peers to care about, to look like the images that claim to convey what our peers look like. The risk of not conforming is isolation, being ostracized, kicked out of the community. If we rebel at all, we usually rebel within a subculture to which we continue to conform.
The planetary ecological crisis requires the breaking of frames at many levels: individual, societal, economic and political. A truly daunting prospect. I find myself frustrated with most attempts at change because they end up being the sort of change that tries to massage reality into the existing frame. Very rarely does anyone dare to break the frame. The consequences are too frightening. We react violently when someone tries to break our frame before we are ready. The frame is “me” until it is broken, so I will fight to the death to preserve it.
This is a great conundrum. Fundamental change is required of us at this time but most of us are not ready for the change. We are committed to our worldview, not to the world. We are willing to tweak the system, but not to turn the system on its head. We want our life to go on in its familiar track, not to change everything. We want security, not uncertainty. We want more, not less. We want to keep the frame intact and just change the picture. If someone tries to break the frame, or the Earth breaks the frame, we will resist. But the frame has to break nonetheless. Life depends on it now.
An example of changing the picture without breaking the frame would be our hope that technology will solve all of our ecological problems. The techno-optimists believe that we can solve all of our problems with solar panels, wind turbines, smart grids and electric cars. The only change required is a change of means, not a change of self or society. It won’t work. As long as we have a sense of self – or an economic system – that endlessly demands more and more, the technology won’t help. We’ll keep needing more of it, and the planet is already groaning under the weight of our perceived needs. Emphasis on the word “perceived.” These are not real, biological needs. They are needs arising from how we frame reality, including our sense of identity. The frames need to be broken. How do we do that without creating a backlash? How do we get around our resistance to essential change? That is the conundrum.
There is no easy solution to this. We are not yet ready to break the frames that define us in relation to the natural world. All I can say right now is that the longer we postpone the reckoning with reality, the harder the reckoning will be. The farther we push the physical limits of the planet, the harder the crash will be.
Take one example: Imagine a world without fossil fuels. Not 100 years from now when some unlimited fantasy fuel has magically appeared or the beleaguered Earth has somehow supplied us with the raw materials and the land to build millions of solar panels and wind turbines and hydro dams. Now. Imagine your life right now without fossil fuels. The blasting and drilling and fracking and pumping have stopped. Coal and oil and natural gas are gone. How does the limiting of your mobility, your autonomy, your employment options, your material security – all of which are presently tied to the availability of fossil fuels – affect your sense of who you are, of how your community is structured, of what you can do?
Which of your frames – your fundamental assumptions about who you are and what the world is and what you expect the world to give you – are dependent on fossil fuels? Are you willing and able to abandon those frames for the sake of life on Earth?
One of the worst things that ever happened to my spiritual life was that I started reading about spirituality, especially “spiritual awakening.” This started happening only recently. Before I started reading about it, I only had my own experience to contend with.
The problem with reading about spirituality is that a fresh, lived experience has a layer of ideas, concepts and language added to it. With concepts in hand, it is then very easy to think that understanding the concept is the same as understanding the thing itself. The really destructive aspect of this is that the concept then becomes a filter that prevents any real surprise. Life becomes dull. The essence of spirituality, at least as I understand it in my own life, is to be oriented toward the real, toward what actually is. The real is constantly changing, constantly surprising. To have spiritual ideas or beliefs is to kill the real. When one has a box full of spiritual ideas, it becomes very difficult to be surprised anymore, and that is the death of the spiritual life.
It would be better, I think, to throw out all the spiritual self-help books, and stop listening to spiritual teachers who are peddling their particular experience or method of “waking up.”
I am throwing away all the spiritual ideas that I have acquired from reading and listening to spiritual teachers. I am even throwing away my own “spiritual” and “mystical” experiences, and going back to direct engagement with life as it is right now.
So, here is the question: what remains when we throw away all our ideas about “awakening” “enlightenment” “heaven” “eternity” “spirituality” “God” “higher self” “bliss” and all the rest of it? What if we set aside, at least as an experiment, everything we think we “know” about ourselves and the world and the spirit? Everything. What if, at least for a moment, we set aside every idea that there is some future place or experience that will fulfill all of our longings, and return all we have lost?
What if this, right here, right now, is all we have and all we are? What if, without any reference to the past or the future, with no past knowledge through which to filter the present, no imagined future through which to postpone the direct engagement with now, with no program through which we will achieve anything at all, we simply dwell in this, right here, right now?
What is that like? How many people even know what this is like, without the overlay of past and future? Without the burden of all our concepts layered onto what actually is?
I can tell you, this is not what most “spiritual seekers” are looking for. Not this moment, exactly as it is. We want something higher, something better, something eternal, something exciting and perfect and purely blissful.
The saddest thing in the world to me is that most of us go through our lives without ever experiencing life as it actually is. We are caught in the net of how we want things to be, and how we think they are. Our ideas about it dominate, and create a screen through which we are incapable of experiencing things as they are. We live in our ideas of the past and the future almost exclusively.
Meanwhile there is this beautiful thing called Life that only exists here and now. By dwelling in the mind’s idea of past and future, we miss most of what is going on right here and now. This. Exactly as it is. Beautiful, painful, inexplicable. Absolutely real. Absolutely free of our ideas about it.
This is all there is. And all the books and all the teachers only serve, in my limited experience, to give us more ideas about what it all means. And those ideas add to the filter that blocks our direct engagement in the real.
Now and then you might meet some one who embodies this reality, and has nothing at all to sell you. And you meet that person, or that animal, or that tree or that blade of grass. And you get it too. You see how you have been imposing your world view onto the world. And for a moment you drop your world view, all the accumulation of your ideas about the world. How it should be. How you want it to be. How it should have been. How you hope it will be. And for a moment you come into direct, unmediated engagement with what actually is, right now.
You will, never, ever forget such a moment. You may fall back into the trance of the mind. Maybe for days or weeks or years. But you will never forget what is real and what is false, and how we spend our days mostly in devotion to what is false.
You will never forget the vitality of that moment. And maybe the mind will realize its gigantic mistake and will become quiet at last, and allow the real to live and breathe again, without any idea about it whatsoever. That moment is still here, waiting to be heard, touched, seen, felt, and lived.
One moment I am deeply absorbed in the story of “me” and “mine,” so
deep into it that it doesn’t feel like a story, it feels like truth.
The next moment I have fallen right out of the story. The story is
still there, but like seeing words on a page, the story of “me” is
seen as a story. I am no longer absorbed by the story, no longer
identified with it, no longer feel like a character in it. Belief in
it has disappeared. It has lost its spell.
Everything that I have always taken to be “me” is seen as a fiction
invented in the brain. And who then am I if not this story that used
to be my entire sense of “me?” With what am I now identified? Where
is the boundary of me? It is gone. The story of me is still here. The
body still appears to be here. The apparent trajectory of the body
through life is still here. But none of that is “me” anymore. I just
can’t find any “me” to identify with all of that. It just is, without
a “me” at the center. Who am I? I simply can not truthfully answer
that question. There does not seem to be any “I” anymore, even though
everything remains essentially the same as before. I am whatever it
is that formerly was spinning the story of “me” and was totally
captivated by the story, and now is no longer. This “I am” still
finds the story interesting, but is not absorbed wholly into it.
In recent weeks something has been looking at the story of “me” and
“the world” and trying to find some place in the narrative that will
captivate it again, captivate it in that old way so that it becomes
completely absorbed in the story, completely lost in the images and
meanings that are part of the story. I don’t understand what it is
that is doing this. Some nostalgic part of the brain I guess. It
seems to think that getting lost in the story again will be some kind
It’s not going to happen, not for long anyway. Once the story is seen
through, there is no going back to the suspension of disbelief that
the story requires. The story of “me” is so very compelling, until it
is seen through, until the words are seen on the page and the images
and meanings collapse. You fall right out of the page, and there is
no hope then of ever knowing who you are, no hope of identifying with
Not that anyone really falls out of anything. It’s just that the
story of “me” no longer works as a means of identification, as an
adequate description of what I know I am. The stories we tell
ourselves about ourselves just aren’t true. The image we have of
ourselves and the world, everything we know, is completely fictional.
And nothing more so than the sense of being a separate “me.” Who we
are, there’s no other way to say it, is everything. We are the dance
of everything. There are no separate selves. I was raised a Christian
so I know what heresy this is within that context, although I think
you can find hints that this is exactly what Jesus was talking about.
There is no “self” that is separate from God and needs to return to
God and be accepted or saved by God. There is only God. God is
everything. That separate self thing is a story invented and
constantly revised and maintained in the brain. A fictional character.
But let it be known, that to see the nature of the story of “me” as a
story, to really see it and not just have an idea about it, is to
fall away from everything that drives humans to do the things we
normally do. All our striving is born out of uncompromising belief in
the story of the separate self. When that story no longer captivates,
when it is seen clearly for the fiction that it is, well, there’s no
telling what might happen.
Belief is a sword that we draw to defend ourselves from the truth.
The truth is simply this that is right now. Alive. Untamable.
Unbelievable. Any belief about it diminishes its grandeur. Any
opinion about it divides its wholeness.
When belief and opinion appear, as they will, know that you are
wielding a weapon that cuts and diminishes reality. Set them aside as
quickly as you can without doing further violence. Know that the
weapon drawn to cut another down to size also cuts you. Divides you
from your true self.
There is nothing wrong with disagreement. Disagreement can be
creative . Disagreement helps one to see beyond the horizon of the
known and familiar.
But when I am committed to being right, and I am committed to making
you wrong, when I have to cut you down to build myself up, that is
when the truth, the living truth, is shredded.
It is perfectly possible to disagree, and challenge each other,
without needing to win the argument, without needing desperately to
be right. But that requires a sense of self that is not in any way
dependent on particular beliefs and opinions. It requires a deep love
for reality, for this that is as it is right now. That love does not
come from the mind, which is divisive by nature, but from reality
And so we know that the truth is love. Reality is love. Reality is
welcoming of everyone and everything. Reality does not take sides,
except to take both sides!
When the individual prefers reality to anything the mind can create,
then that love can permeate even the individual mind or “self.” But
the starting place is not to try to wrestle the mind into compliance,
but to take the perspective of reality, which is perfectly happy with
things exactly as they are (which is not to say that anything will
stay as it is!).
Can we live in the dynamic fullness of this that is as it is? Can we
live in the paradox that reality is perfectly comfortable with
conflict, and that being fully embraced by reality, and fully
accepting that embrace, has a tendency to reduce conflict? Conflict
comes from the belief in separation. Holding such a belief is part of
the real, but the underlying truth is that reality is an unbroken
whole, and to accept the embrace of reality is to return to
wholeness. Embraced by the whole truth, how can any partial truth
survive for more than a little while?
Beliefs and opinions are having a field day, but no one ever believes
anything without someone else believing the opposite, so a kind of
temporary balance is struck that hints at the underlying wholeness
that is never truly broken and can be recalled at any moment.