Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is...

Friday January 29, 2010


OK, so I’ve written about this before, but I’m still not sure that I’ve got to the bottom of it, so at the risk of repeating myself I’m going to have another stab at it. Or, at least, at reframing, once again, the question that has been recently haunting me.

As regular visitors will know, I’ve been thinking a bit lately about what some folks call the cognitive unconscious. My cognitive unconscious is not some terrible area of inner darkness where, unbeknownst to me, lurk various childhood repressions and Oedipal shenanigans, but instead the large chunk of my mental processing, as a living creature going about its business in the world, that goes on unbeknownst to what I call “me”. Despite the claims of some that Buddhist meditation is a sure-fire way of finding out about our inner world, of mapping our internal geography, or of consciousness becoming transparent to itself, so to speak, there is increasing evidence that much of our functioning is, and forever will be, cognitively closed to us, at least from the point of view of first-person methods, whether meditative or otherwise. And this has interesting implications not just for how we see meditation, but for how we see ourselves.

Here, I think, things get rather interesting, because we tend to think that our minds are our own affairs, curious little empires for which we are the sole authoritative ambassadors. But if much of what takes place in our minds takes place in a fashion that is closed to us (and that may always be closed to us, which was the thrust of my previous post on the subject), then this does tend to erode this sense of self-certainty, and it tends to eat away at the authority that we often claim for ourselves. For there are a great many philosophical constructions of what it is to be a self, or an agent, or a perceiver, that simply do not fit with what we now know about the cognitive unconscious, with what we now know about how our minds work.

So this is what I’m still not sure I’ve got to the bottom of: what does this fact that most of my mind’s business is really not something I will ever have access to mean for the way that I conceive of myself? What does it mean for the sense I might have of being me? Because it seems to me that the more we know about how we actually function, the more this knowledge makes strange what we might otherwise take for granted in experience. And this is where the fun starts.

Something, as Bob once said, is happening here. But I don’t know what it is.

# · Leamur

I listen, therefore I am.

(Just to try something on for size ;)

# · Zaidi Ademeit

J. D. Salinger pondered the same, and the certainty of this uncertainty is what drove him to a sort of self imposed exile. I believe the price of an expanded consciousness is the ability to rise above the plane of our existence, with our minds intact. We perceive something, but we don’t know what it is; but, it is delightful in its premise and promise. The responsibility then becomes a newer, more profound faith, shared by physicists and Buddhist alike, which deepens our love, and respect, for the human mind (ourselves), which enables us to reach beyond our expanding universe.

# · David Chapman

I found myself nodding and agreeing all through this. But after finishing I thought “Hang on!” Regarding “the claims of some that Buddhist meditation is a sure-fire way of finding out [everything] about our inner world” — who is this, and what exactly do they claim?

I’m feeling somewhat brain-dead this morning, and am probably missing the obvious — but offhand I can’t think of anyone serious who makes such a claim. Although it certainly sounds familiar, so it probably is at least something said by contemporary Western Buddhist teachers. But they are often unknowingly under the influence of German Romanticism (as argued persuasively by David McMahan in his Making of Buddhist Modernism, expanding the argument in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s insightful article “Romancing the Buddha”). The idea that quasi-magical methods (such as meditation) can be used to gain access to a transcendent, unitary “deep self” is straight out of German Romanticism — not Buddhism. As far as Buddhism goes, there’s just a higgledy-piggledy lot of aggregates; and offhand I can’t think of anyone serious who says that meditation gives you complete access to their operation.

On my short list of things to read is George Ainslie’s Breakdown of Will, which seems to be a very interesting account of the incoherence of selfness. [Hat tip: mtraven, omniorthogonal.blogs…] “The historic difficulty of specifying what the self consists of doesn’t come from its superfluousness, but the fact that it’s a set of tactical alliances rather than an organ.”


# · Charlie

Haha. Everything can be circled back to Dylan.

# · Jeff

I believe Alan Wallace from his training in tibetan buddhism is one who states that through buddhist techniques your inner world becomes accessible and knowable.

# · Jeff

Does the fact that our awareness/self is transitory, changeable “higgledy-piggedly” preclude the existence of a permanent reality be it God, the buddha nature or whatever or whomever depending on your taste, which we experience in a transitory, intermitent way because of what we’re like, not because “the ultimate” is also higgledy-piggedly? I don’t think our own “higgledy-pigglediness” isn’t absolute evidence that everything is that way, it’s evidence that WE are that way – which is useful information, but maybe not the final word as to what is going on.

# · Will

Alan Wallace does seem to be one example of a writer who claims that meditation is about access to a kind of authoritative account of an inner world. And there is a lot of Buddhism-meets-phenomenology stuff out there that talks similarly (as well as more popular presentations).

Dennett, on the other hand, says that strictly speaking, there are no phenomenologists, which is to say, there are no uncontroversial experts on the functioning of mind from a first-person perspective. Dennett may, of course, be wrong. But as far as I can see, the way that we can find out if this is the case is by means of the kind of experimental approach that I suggested in my earlier post. It would be fun to demonstrate that Dennett is wrong (if he is) in the cases of experienced meditators. It would also be fun to demonstrate that he is right (if he is).

As for a permanent reality “be it God, the buddha nature or whatever”, I’m not sure what this might mean. If I had to choose between God, buddha nature and whatever, I’d almost certainly go for whatever.

Thanks for the recommendation for Breakdown of Will. It sounds fascinating.

All the best,

# · Omkarananda

Mind is simply MIND – Just that, nothing else. It is also fickle (very fickle) constantly changing, rash, unreliable. Who would pursue such phenomena let alone trust, or give it much importance. Does an external force control mind? – What is Mind Control really? – Let this fleeting un-subtance alone and seek within what is not MIND!- Go beyond MIND – it is simply a labyrinth camouflaging the ultimate reality which is deeply hidden within. Dig deeper than MIND if you can. Then get back to me with the answers please.

# · Casey

Not to get too playfully Zen here, but who is the “I” that you expect to have (or not have) access to your mind? Maybe that’s just a matter of unwieldy grammar… or maybe not. Interesting post.

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