Over the last several months, I’ve been offering reflections on the khandas, or aggregates of experience from which we fashion a sense of self. I’ve looked at the body, feelings, perceptions, and thoughts. All of which, before the contemplative gaze, appear to be impermanent and lacking any sense of static self-hood.
The last cluster of experience in this contemplative group is consciousness itself, or, perhaps better put as ‘moments of consciousness’. When I empty out my bucket of identification, releasing attachment to bodily sensations, feelings, perceptions, and thoughts, I’m often left with a secure attachment to the watcher or the observer. Some call this the Witness, as if capitalizing it elevates it to a sacred status. For many years, I’ve been drawn to teachings (and have shared teachings) that emphasize ‘resting as awareness’, or ‘abiding as awareness’.
And while there is nothing inherently wrong with those schools of training, I am now starting to think that there is a potential danger of solidifying an identification with the process of consciousness, reifying it, perhaps with a touch of the ironic, unconsciously.
Stephen Batchelor’s writings have brought this issue to my attention most vividly. In his fantastic memoir, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist,Batchelor offers this reflection:
“Consciousness is what happens when an organism encounters an environment. If an eye is struck by light reflected off a colored shape, then visual consciousness occurs. But as soon as the object passes out of the field of vision or one shuts one’s eyes, that consciousness ceases. This is true of every kind of consciousness. ‘Just as fire,’ Gotama explained to Sati, ‘is reckoned by the particular condition dependent on which it burns — a log fire, a dung fire and so on — so too, consciousness is reckoned by the particular condition on which it arises.’ Consciousness is an emergent, contingent, and impermanent phenomenon. It has no magical capacity to break free from the field of events out of which it springs.” (Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, pg. 180)
In one clean paragraph, Batchelor challenges a decade of spiritual assumptions that I wasn’t even aware of having swallowed. It yanks away the spiritual rug, tossing me into an unsure and insecure realm stripped of transcendent solace.
So this week, in your life and practice, be on the lookout for a sense of personal solidity that crystallizes around the process of knowing. Notice the assurance of identity that forms around awareness. Listen to the seductive and intuitive voice which whispers, “This bright awareness, this is your true Self, this is your unchanging core.”
In simple language, the Burmese master, Sayadaw U Tejaniya gives a hint to the nature of insights that come out of this contemplation:
“Insights will arise under very ordinary circumstances. The object of your observation can be a very simple and straightforward one,but the insight can be very deep, a world apart from the simplicity of the experience. The object can be something you come across every day, but the insight will be mind-blowing. For example, while smelling the soap when taking a shower you suddenly and very deeply understand that there is just this smelling and knowing, that there is nobody doing it, that these processes just happen themselves.” (Sayadaw U Tejaniya, fromAwareness Alone is Not Enough)
And as that insight arises, you will no longer seek safety or identification with the magical illusion that is consciousness.
Originally published on April 27. 2012