Archive for the 'Nature of Mind' Category

Synchronicity and the ‘Support of Nature’

Saturday, October 29th, 2016

Back in the sixties I spent time studying Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his ashram in Rishikesh, India. When he was assessing how we were each progressing in our practice, he was often not so interested in our experiences within meditation itself—whether we were noticing subtle levels of thinking, discovering the true self, having deep insights or visions. His principal interest was whether we were noticing, what he called, “increased support of nature” in our daily lives. By this he meant: Were we noticing that the world seems to support our needs and intentions—in other words, were we noticing what many of us would call increased synchronicities, or meaningful coincidences.

His thinking went as follows: In meditation we are transcending thinking and reconnecting with our true nature. Much of our thinking is a manifestation of our ego-mind—thinking that is primarily concerned with our personal needs and desires—and by transcending, that is “going beyond,” it we are freeing ourselves from its demands. It is clear that many of the problems we see in the world—from international and environmental problems to social and personal problems—stem, in one way or another, from our egoic thinking. So by stepping out of the ego-mind we are supporting nature in the most fundamental way possible. And nature returns the favour by supporting us.

I have never heard of any other teacher taking this approach (which is not to say there may not be some). And although it may sound a little like “magical thinking” I have noticed it to be frequently true in my own life. When I am meditating regularly, and in particular when I have been on a meditation retreat, life seems to be working out very well, many little coincidences leading me to just what I need at the right time. On the other hand when I’m stressed, not in touch with my true self, but caught up in the demands of egoic thinking, synchronicities like this do not happen so much.

Consciousness does not identify with anything

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

I sometimes hear people claim that pure consciousness identifies itself with the ego, with thinking, or with the body. What they are effectively saying is that the pure Self, i.e. that which is conscious of all experiences, believes it is a separate self, a thinker, a chooser, and doer of actions. But the pure Self, does not believe or think anything. It is that which is aware of the thoughts and beliefs that are arising—the “knower” of all experience.

This Self is not tainted or affected in any way by the perturbations of the mind. It’s essence remains unchanged, just as the water in a wave is not itself changed by the wave’s motion. Unchanging, the Self is the silent knower of all that appears in our experience.

What is actually happening is that the attention becomes absorbed in the thought-system of the ego.

Attention is intrinsic to being aware. It might be thought of as the spotlight of awareness, focusing on one particular aspect of the enormous breadth of the totality of our experience. It’s job is to attend to things that may be important.

The attention has two basic modes of operation. There is a relaxed mode where everything is OK. We are at ease, and the attention moves effortlessly, from one possible interest to another, with no voluntary effort or control—attracted to the sound of a bird, an itch, a moth flying by. In this mode, our attention is not pre-occupied with who we are, or our sense of self.

Then when we do notice something of interest our attention stays there for a while. We pay attention. We consider whether this may be important for our well-being? Do I need do anything? If so what? The focus of consciousness is now on the issue at hand, and the thoughts we are having about it.

If the issue at hand is deemed important for our well-being, then the seamless whole of our experience is divided in two. There is this body, the organism that needs taking care of, and the world around that may need to be changed in some way, or conversely be prevented from changing. We create a sense of being an individual self who is thinking and acting in the world. But this sense of self is, in the final analysis, just a set of thoughts and beliefs. It is another form arising in experience, another “thing” we are conscious of.

Consciousness has not identified itself with this sense of self. The identification is in our thinking. Consciousness itself remains, as ever, the silent witness of all these shenanigans. It is simply aware of them as it would be of any other thought or experience.

The separate sense of self is like a character in a novel. If it is an engrossing novel, we, the reader, can become so absorbed in the story, the ups and downs of the hero’s adventure, that we temporarily forget we are the reader of the story. Our attention is absorbed by the drama, imaging the world of the hero. Similarly with the dramas of our own lives, our attention becomes absorbed in our own hero’s journey—the challenges and opportunities, our hopes and fears, the choices we must make, the risks we must take. But the pure Self, the knower of all experience, has not identified with the separate self, the character in our personal story. It merely experiences the machinations of this particular way of thinking.

So when we say consciousness becomes identified with the ego, with thoughts or the body, what is actually happening is that the attention is so focused on these aspects of our experience that they dominate our experience. For a while, the fact that we are much more than that does not get a chance to enter. We forget we are that which is watching the drama unfold.

There is no such thing as self

Friday, June 17th, 2016

Let me be clear, the emphasis is on “thing”. We all experience a sense of personal self, a “me” that is reading these words, an individual with its own thoughts and opinions, likes and dislikes. And we also know a sense of I-ness that is always present, that which knows this experience right now, and every other experience we’ve ever had. But neither of these senses of self is a thing, an object we can identify and go find.

When I look within I find various things that I am aware of—thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions. I also find ideas about who I am: a name, gender, age, personality, memories and fantasies, hopes and fears. But these are not my self. They are just experiences that give me a sense that I am an individual being, with a unique set of attributes.

When I feel I am caught in my ego, there’s not a “thing” that is controlling me. What I’m caught in is a self-centered way of thinking—usually about how can I get what I need from the world so that I can feel OK. It is just a mode of thinking, determined by a mind-set or belief as to how to get what I want. There’s no actual thing called an “ego” directing my thoughts; just patterns of responses, each in their own way seeking to help me feel safe and survive. And at times I am very grateful for this way of thinking. Without it none of us would have survived for long.

Then there is that ever-present quality of “I”, the knower all experience—including the experience of being a separate unique self. That is no-thing either. Unlike the ego-mind which has a whole host of qualities associated with it, the knower, the “I am” at the center every experience has no intrinsic qualities. It is consciousness, the subject of all experience.

Having no intrinsic qualities, the ever-present sense of “I”, often called the “pure self” or Self, can never be known as an object of experience. For that it would need to have a form that could be known. One may seem to experience it as a location in the body, a quality of presence in the heart perhaps, or a deep feeling of me-ness. But in the final analysis, however, subtle, and perhaps “spiritual”, these experiences might be they are all experiences, and as such are known to and by consciousness. They are not the pure self, that which is aware of them all. For that reason this self can never be known as a thing.

If I ask “Who are you?” the mind can come up with all manner of answers. But if I ask simply “Are you?” the answer invariably is a simple “Yes.”

The Emergence of Self-Awareness: The Mirror Test

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

Do other animals have a sense of self?

One common way of answering this question is with the “mirror test”. Does an animal recognize itself in a mirror?

The test was first devised by Charles Darwin who held up a mirror to an orangutan in a zoo, noting how the animal reacted with unusual facial expressions. In the 1970s the test was refined by placing a mark on an animal’s face, and then observing how it responded when it looked in the mirror. Orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos will poke the spot or try to remove it, showing that they see the image in the mirror as a reflection of themselves. Bottlenose dolphins and orcas also pass the test. And recently elephants have been shown to pass it.

Dogs and cats, however, fail the mirror test. Dogs will occasionally bark at their reflection, and cats have been known to go look behind the mirror, but generally these animals ignore their image in the mirror. It is therefore assumed that they have no sense of self. But can we draw such a clear line between creatures with a sense of self and those without?

That a dog or cat generally ignores its reflection rather than behaving as if it were seeing another animal is interesting. They do not pass the test in the sense of recognizing themselves in the reflection; yet they do not completely fail the test either. They know they are not seeing another dog or cat. I call this “not-other” awareness, as opposed to full self-awareness.

I suspect not-other awareness is to be found in any animal that drinks from water. As it leans forward to drink, it is likely to come face to face with its own reflection. If it interpreted this as another animal looming close, it would probably back off (and, if repeated continually, die of thirst). For such creatures, there is a clear evolutionary advantage in the inhibition of the “other” response when seeing their own reflection in water.

With the great apes, dolphins, and elephants, consciousness has now evolved to the point where it can recognize the “not-other” as itself.

So it would seem that the evolution of self is not a black or white affair. There are many shades of gray between no self-awareness and self-awareness.

Returning to Natural Mind

Friday, September 26th, 2014

In the final analysis, the hope of every person is simply peace of mind. Behind all our endeavors lies the desire to be happy, to feel content, relaxed, and at ease. No one wants to be in pain or to suffer unnecessarily. This is our true bottom line. We may think we are seeking some external goal, but we are seeking it in the hope that, in one way or another, we’ll feel better for it.

Why then, are we so seldom at peace? After all, we’re intelligent beings, who can look ahead and plan for the future. Moreover, we have many tools and technologies with which to create a better world. One would think that we, of all creatures, would be content and at ease. Yet the very opposite seems to be the case. Paradoxically, it is our remarkable ability to change the world that has led us to this sorry state. We have fallen into the belief that if we are not at peace, then we must do something about it. We believe we need to attain some goal, possess some thing, find some new experience; or conversely, avoid a situation or person that is causing us distress. We assume that, if we could just get our world to be the way we want, we would finally be happy.

In the short term, this approach seems to work. When we get what we want, we usually do feel better. But only for a while. Before long, we are off in search of some other source of happiness.

We live in what Indian philosophies call samsara, which means “to wander on.” We wander on, looking for happiness in a world that provides but temporary respites from our discontent, fleeting satisfactions followed by more wandering on in search of that ever-elusive goal.

Moreover, believing that peace of mind comes from what we have or do often makes us feel worse, not better. Imagining that something is missing or needs changing creates discontent. Our attention gets preoccupied with what we need, the choices to be made, the plans to carry them out—much of it concerning situations that don’t yet exist, and probably never will. Our thinking moves from one issue to another with seldom a pause.

Rather than feeling more at ease, we generally end up more tense. Throughout history, there have been those who’ve discovered a timeless truth about human consciousness: Our natural state of mind is already one of ease and contentment. By “natural” they do not mean the state of mind in which we spend most of our time—which, for the vast majority, is not one of ease and contentment. They are speaking of the mind before it becomes tarnished with desires and aversions. It is how we feel when everything is OK; when we are not worrying about anything.

Time and again they’ve told us that we don’t need to do anything, or go anywhere to be at peace. We simply need to cease striving for a moment. Let go of any attachments as to how things should or should not be. Become aware of our experience in the present as it is, without resistance or judgement. Then—and this is key—let the attention soften and relax.

When we do, we taste how it feels to be free from worry, anticipation, deciding and planning. We find the peace of mind that we have been seeking all along. A peace that is not at the mercy of events, or the vacillations of the thinking mind. A peace we can return to again and again.

Praying to One’s Self

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

A friend recently asked if I ever prayed for anything. My response was yes, but not in the conventional way. I don’t pray for intervention in the world, but for intervention in my mind, for that’s where I most need help.

We usually think of prayer as an appeal to some higher power. We might pray for someone’s healing, for success in some venture, for a better life, or for guidance on some challenging issue. Behind such prayers is the recognition that we don’t have the power to change things ourselves—if we did, we would simply get on with the task—so we beseech a higher power to intervene on our behalf.

Trying to change the world occupies much of our time and attention. We want the possessions, opportunities, or experiences that we think will make us happy—or conversely, avoid those that will make us suffer. We believe that if only things were different we would finally be at peace.

This is the ego’s way of thinking. It is founded on the belief that how we feel inside depends upon our circumstances. And if things aren’t the way we think they should be, we start to feel discontent. This can take various forms—disappointment, frustration, annoyance, impatience, judgment, grievance—yet whatever its form, the root of our discontent lies not so much in the situation at hand, but more in how we interpret it.

For example, if I am stuck in a traffic jam, I can see it either as something that will make me suffer—being late for an appointment, missing some experience, or upsetting someone—and so begin to feel impatient, frustrated, or anxious. Or I can see it as an opportunity to relax, and take it easy for a few minutes. The same situation; two totally different reactions. And the difference is purely in how I am seeing things.

When I catch myself feeling upset in some way, I find it helpful to remember that my annoyance might be coming from the way I am interpreting the situation. If so, it makes more sense to ask, not for a change in the world, but for a change in my perception.

So that is what I pray for. I settle into a quiet state, then ask, with an attitude of innocent curiosity: “Could there, perhaps, be another way of seeing this?” I don’t try to answer the question myself, for that would doubtless activate the ego-mind, which loves to try and work things out for me. So I simply pose the question. Let it go. And wait.

Often a new way of seeing then dawns on me. It does not come as a verbal answer, but as an actual shift in perception. I find myself seeing the situation in a new way.

One memorable shift happened a while ago when I was having some challenges with my partner. She was not behaving the way I thought she should. (How many of us have not felt that at times?) After a couple of days of strained relationship, I decided to pray in this way, just gently inquiring if there might possibly be another way of perceiving this.

Almost immediately, I found myself seeing her in a very different light. Here was another human being, with her own history and her own needs, struggling to navigate a difficult situation. Suddenly everything changed. I felt compassion for her rather than animosity, understanding rather than judgment. I realized that for the last two days I had been out of love; but now the love had returned.

The results of praying like this never cease to impress me. I find my fears and grievances dropping away. In their place is a sense of ease. Whoever or whatever was troubling me, I now see through more loving and compassionate eyes. Moreover, the new perspective often seems so obvious: Why hadn’t I seen this before?

The beauty of this approach is that I am not praying to some external power. I am praying to my self for guidance—to the true self that sees things as they are without the overlay of various hopes and fears. It recognizes when I have become caught in the ego’s way of thinking, and is ever-willing to help set me free.

Not Resisting Resistance

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

The building where I used to run a meditation group was on the same street as a fire station. One could almost guarantee that sometime during the meditation a fire engine would come rushing past, sirens wailing. Not surprisingly, people would afterwards complain. “How could I meditate with that noise?”

How often have we felt something similar? There’s an unspoken assumption that the mind can only become quiet if the world around is quiet. We imagine the ideal meditation setting to be somewhere far from the madding crowd — a retreat deep in a forest, a peaceful chapel, or the quiet of one’s own bedroom, perhaps. It is much harder for the mind to settle down in a noisy environment. Or is it?

I suggested to the group that the next time a fire engine came blasting by they look within and explore whether the sound really was that disturbing? After the following meditation, a woman reported how the noise no longer seemed a problem. It was there, but it didn’t disturb her. The disturbance, she realized, came not from the sound itself, but from wishing it weren’t there.

This was the essence of Buddha’s realization 2,500 years ago. We all experience what he called dukkha, conventionally translated as “suffering.” In Pali, the language of Buddha’s time, dukkha is the negation of the word sukha, meaning “at ease.” So dukkha might also be translated as not-at-ease, or discontent — an experience we all can relate to.

The root meanings of these words add further insight. Sukha stems from su (good)-kha (hole), and generally referred to a good axle hole in the wheel of a cart. The wheel was a great technological boon of the time, and whether or not it ran smoothly around its axle would have been a primary concern for both comfort and efficiency. Conversely, the root of dukkha is duh (bad)-kha (hole). There is resistance to the smooth running of the wheel, leading to friction and discomfort.

Similarly with the mind. When we accept things as they are, “go with the flow,” there is ease — sukha. This is our natural state of mind — content and relaxed. Dukkha arises when we resist our experience. Our natural state of ease becomes veiled by a self-created discontent.

Thus, as Buddha and numerous other teachers have pointed out, we can return to a more peaceful state of mind by letting go of our attachments as to how our experience ought to be and accept it as it is.

Upon hearing this, people often ask: Does this mean I should accept injustice and cruelty, the homeless sleeping on the streets, or the recalcitrant attitude of my partner? Of course not. There are numerous situations that we should not tolerate, and each of us, in our own way, will be called to do what we can to improve things.

“Accepting our experience as it is,” means just that; accepting our experience in the moment. If we are feeling frustrated, angry, or indignant, accept that feeling. Don’t resist it, or wish it weren’t there; but let it in, become interested in how it feels.

Even more valuably, we can explore the resistance itself. It can be quite subtle, and not easily noticed at first. I find it useful to simply pause and ask: “Is there any sense of resistance that I am not noticing?” And gently wait. I may then become aware of some resentment or aversion towards my experience, or sometimes a faint sense of tension or contraction in my being. Then rather than focusing on whatever I may have been resisting, I turn my attention to the resistance itself, opening to this aspect of “what is.”

Rather than dividing experience into two parts — the experience in the moment, and thoughts and feelings about that experience — any resistance is now included as part of the present moment. Not resisting the resistance, the veil of discontent dissolves, and I return to a more relaxed, easeful state of mind.

That is what is meant by a quiet mind. Not an empty mind. We are aware of the world just as before. Aware of sounds, sensations, thoughts and feelings. We are simply allowing our experience to be as it is. Not wishing for something different, not creating unnecessary discontent.

So when you find something seeming to disturb your inner quiet — whether it be a friend’s behavior, some politician on TV or a passing fire engine — pause and notice what is happening inside. See if there is any sense of resistance to your experience. If so, open up to the experience of resisting; be curious as to what is going on and how it feels. Include this part of the present moment in your awareness, and you may well discover that you can be at ease in situations where you before you would have suffered.

Effortless Meditation

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

You may be surprised to hear that meditation should be effortless, that no striving or concentration is needed. I know I was. When I first became interested in meditation, back in the mid-sixties, I was repeatedly told that it took great mental discipline and many years of practice. Indian teachers had likened the mind to a wagonload of restless monkeys that needed to be tied down and kept quiet.

And my experience appeared to confirm it. My mind was full of thoughts, and try as I may, I could not keep them at bay. Like many others, I naturally assumed that I was not trying hard enough; I needed greater mental discipline, not less.

Then I chanced upon Transcendental Meditation. Its teacher, the Maharishi of Beatles fame, challenged the whole notion of trying to control the mind. The monkeys, he pointed out, were wanting something–more bananas perhaps. Give them what they want and they will settle down of their own accord. So with the mind; it is restless because we are seeking something. And what is it we are seeking? In the final analysis, we all want to feel better–to be happier, more at peace, at ease, fulfilled, content. He argued that if we give the mind a taste of the inner contentment it is looking for, it will be attracted to it and begin to settle down of its own accord.

This made more sense to me than what I’d come across so far, so I learned his practice. And it worked. I found my mind becoming quiet without any effort. Indeed, as soon as I inadvertently started trying to control the process, in the hope that I could somehow help my meditation along, it did not work so well.

Now I am not suggesting that this applies to every type of meditation. Techniques designed to cultivate particular mental skills or states of mind, may well involve a degree of concentration or mental discipline. But when it comes to the basic skill of relaxing into a quieter state of mind, effort generally turns out to be counter-productive.

A quiet mind is not a state of mind to be achieved. It is the state we experience when there is nothing to be achieved. It is the mind in its natural condition, untarnished by fears and desires, and the thoughts they create. When everything is OK in our world, we feel OK inside; we are at ease.
Or rather, that is the way it should be. Yet, even when all our physical needs are met, and there is no immediate threat or danger, we seldom feel totally at ease. More often than not, the very opposite. Leave us with nothing to do, and most of us start getting bored. If someone upsets us, we may hold a grievance days, weeks, or even years later. Or we may spend hours worrying about situations that could occur, but seldom do.

Along with such feelings come an almost endless procession of thoughts. Most of them boil down to worries about how we can be more content; yet, ironically, a worried mind is, by definition, discontent. This is the sad joke about human beings. We are so busy worrying whether or not we are going to be at peace in the future, we don’t give ourselves the chance to be at peace in the present.

Given how easily such thoughts spring up, it is easy to assume they must be subdued and controlled. But that approach stems from the same belief that created them–the belief that we need to be in control of things in order to feel at ease.

Thus the advice that occurs repeatedly in a variety of meditation traditions is:

  1. When you realize you have been caught in a thought, accept the fact. Don’t judge or blame yourself. It happens, even to the most experienced meditators.
  2. Instead of following the thought, as you might in normal life, gently shift your attention back to some experience in the present moment. In TM that may be the thought of a mantra, in mindfullness the sensation of the breath, or in other practices perhaps a visual image, or a feeling of love.
  3. Let the attention rest in that experience. Don’t try to concentrate or hold it there. Ah yes, you will be sure to wander off again. But the practice is not so much learning how to stay present, but how to return to the present. If you wander off a hundred times, that is a hundred opportunities to practice gently returning your attention to the present.

Even then, trying and effort can arise in subtle ways. Maybe if I just added this or focused on that, it would be easier. Some of it is so subtle that we don’t even notice we are doing it. A faint resistance to an experience perhaps. Even a slight wanting to have a good meditation can get in the way.

Over my forty years of teaching meditation, I have found the greatest challenge for students is to let go of all effort. They can’t quite believe that they really do not need to try at all. Sometimes, even the most experienced meditators, with years of practice, may still put a slight effort or control into their practice. Once they let go completely they begin to appreciate how effortless it can be, and find themselves dropping even more easily into a state of inner silence.

Recently, I’ve been exploring ways to weed out and dissolve even the subtlest levels of wanting, effort, and expectation in meditation. Encouraged by the enthusiastic response these new approaches have received from both complete beginners and people with many years of practice, I am now making them more widely available online at

The Paradox of Free Will

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

One of my earliest ventures into philosophy, back in high school, concerned the question of “free will versus determinism.” If the world unfolds according to fixed laws, then everything that happens is determined by events that have gone before. Since our brains are part of this world, their state is also determined by preceding events. Hence, so are our thoughts and experiences, and, most significantly, the decisions we make.   On the other hand, we all experience making choices from small things like what to eat, to bigger issues like career and marriage.   We live our lives on the assumption that we do indeed have free will. The two views seem incompatible. Hence the paradox. And the question: Which is right?

I suspect most of you will have pondered this question at some time or other. Many may have landed on the free will side of the conundrum, believing that we do make choices of our own volition. Some on the other side, believing that free will is an illusion. Others, seeing validity in both sides of the paradox, may remain baffled or uncertain.

Over the years I have revisited this paradox many times. In my mid-twenties I wrote a magazine article entitled “And the Opposite is Also True.”   There I argued that it was not a question of whether free will or determinism was correct. I postulated that they were like two sides of a coin; two very different perspectives of the same reality. From one perspective determinism is true; from the other free will is true. But as to what these two complementary perspectives might be, I wasn’t clear.

Then last year, in one of those moments of insight, it all fell into place. I realized that the two fundamentally different perspectives stemmed from two fundamentally different states of consciousness.

But before I explain how this may resolve the paradox, we should first go a little deeper into the evidence for both “determinism” and “free will”.

The Evidence

Determinism, in its original form, holds that the future is determined by the present state of affairs. But this does not imply that the future is fully predictable. For a start, we could never know the present state of affairs in sufficient detail to calculate the future precisely. Even if we could, chaos theory shows that even the slightest uncertainty in the current conditions can, on occasions, lead to wildly different outcomes. Quantum theory added its own challenge to strict determinism, showing that events at the atomic level can be truly random. Today, scientists and philosophers alike accept that the future is neither predictable nor predetermined.  

But even though the future may not be fixed in a classical sense, this does not necessarily give us free will. The activity in our brain is still determined by preceeding events—some random, some not—and so are our experiences, including our apparent experience of free choice.

In recent years, neuroscience has found interesting evidence to support this conclusion. In one oft-quoted experiment, subjects were asked to make a flick of their wrist at a time of their own choosing, and to note the position of the second hand of a clock at the moment of choosing. However, simultaneous recordings of the subjects’ brain activity showed that preparations for movement were occurring about half a second before the conscious decision to move.

Subsequent experiments have confirmed these findings. Scientists have been able to detect associated brain activity occurring as much as a second or more in advance of the conscious experience of making a choice. They conclude that our decisions are being driven by unconscious brain activity, not by conscious choice. But when the decision reaches conscious awareness, we experience having made a choice.  

From this perspective, the apparent freedom of choice lies in our not knowing what the outcome will be. Take, for example, the common process of choosing what to eat in a restaurant. I first eliminate dishes I don’t like, or ones I ate recently, narrowing down to a few that attract me. I then decide on one of these according to various other factors—nutritional value, favorite tastes, what I feel my body needs, etc. It feels like I am making a free choice, but the decision I come to is predetermined by current circumstances and past experience. However, because I do not know the outcome of the decision-making process until it appears in my mind, I feel that I have made a free choice.

Yet, the other side of the conundrum persists. The experience of making choices of our own volition is very real. And we live our lives on the assumption that we are making decisions of our own free will, and directing our own future. It is virtually impossible not to.

A Self that Chooses?

Implicit in the notion of choice is the existence of a “chooser”—an independent self that is an active agent in the process. This, too, fits with our experience. There seems to be an “I” that is perceiving the world, making assessments and decisions, and making its own choices. This “I” feels it has chosen the dish from the menu.

The experience of an individual self is so intrinsic to our lives that we seldom doubt its veracity. But does it really exist in is own right? Two lines of research suggest not.  

Neuroscientists find no evidence of an individual self located somewhere in the brain. Instead they propose that what we call “I” is but a mental construct derived from bodily experience. We draw a distinction between “me” and “not me” and create a sense of self for the “me” part. From a biological point of view, this distinction is most valuable. Taking care of the needs of this self, is taking care of our physical needs. We seek whatever promotes our well-being and avoid those that threaten it.

The second, very different, line of research involves the exploration of subjective experience. People who have delved into the nature of the actual experience of self have discovered that the closer they examine this sense of “I” , the more it seems to dissolve. Time and again they find there is no independent self. There are thoughts of “I”, but no “I” that is thinking them.  

They find that what we take to be a sense of an omnipresent “I” is simply consciousness itself. There is no separate experiencer; there is simply a quality of being, a sense of presence, an awareness that is always there whatever our experience. They conclude that what we experience to be an independent self is a construct in the mind—very real in its appearance but of no intrinsic substance. It, like the choices it appears to make, is a consequence of processes in the brain. It has no free will of its own.  

Complementary Perspectives

Nevertheless—and this is critical for resolving the paradox—in our everyday state of consciousness, the sense of self is very real. It is who we are. Although this “I” may be part of the brain’s model of reality, it is nevertheless intimately involved in the making of decisions, weighing up the pros and cons, coming to conclusions, choosing what to do and when to do it. So in the state where the self is real, we do experience our selves making choices. And those choices are experienced as being of our own volition. Here, free will is real.  

On the other hand, in what is often called the “liberated” or “fully-awake” state of consciousness, in which one no longer identifies with the constructed sense of self, the thought of “I” is seen as just another experience arising in the mind. And so is the experience of choosing. It is all witnessed as a seamless whole unfolding before one.

When I appreciated the complementary nature of these two states of consciousness the paradox dissolved for me. Whether or not we experience free will depends on the state from which we are experiencing the world. In one state of consciousness there is free will. In the other, it has no reality.  

Free will and determinism are no longer paradoxical in the sense of being mutually exclusive. Both are correct, depending upon the consciousness from which they are considered. The paradox only appears when we consider both sides from the same state of consciousness, i.e, the everyday waking state.

I like to illustrate this with Hamlet pondering the question of “To be or not to be?” The character in the play is making a choice. And if we have not seen the play before, we may wonder which way he will choose. This is the thrill of the play, to be engaged in it, moved by it, absorbed in its reality with all its twists and turns. However, we also know that how the play unfolds was determined long ago by William Shakespeare. So, we have two complementary ways of viewing the play. At times we may choose to live fully in the drama. Other times we may step back to admire his creative genius.  

So in life. We can be engaged in the drama, experiencing free will, making choices that affect our futures. Or we can step back and be a witness to this amazing play of life unfolding before us. Both are true within their respective frameworks.

A Will Free of Ego

Although, in the liberated state of mind, there may be no free will in the sense in which we normally think of it, there is instead a newfound freedom far more fulfilling and enriching than the freedom of choice to which we cling.  

The will of the individual self is focused on survival. Its foundation is the survival of the organism, fulfilling our bodily needs, avoiding danger or anything that threatens our well-being. In other words, keeping us alive and well, fending of the inevitability of death as long as possible. Added to this are various psychological and social needs. We want to feel safe and secure, to be feel stimulated and fulfilled, to be respected and appreciated. We believe that if we can just get the world to be way want it—and here the world includes other people—then we will be happy.  

In the liberated state, the ego no longer drives our thinking and behavior. When it drops away we discover that the ease and safety we had been seeking are already there; they are qualities of our true nature. But it is the nature of the ego to plan and worry, to seek the things it wants, avoid the things it doesn’t want. In so doing creates it tension and resistance, which veils our true nature, hiding from us the very peace of mind that we are seeking.  

The life-changing discovery of the liberated mind is that it is already at peace. Nothing needs to be done, nothing needs to happen, nothing needs to change in order to experience peace. There may still be much to do in the world; helping others, resolving injustices, taking care of our environment, etc.. But we are free from the dictates of the ego; we are free to respond according to needs of the situation at hand rather than what the ego wants. Here our will is truly free.  

Where Did Language Come From?

Friday, January 6th, 2012

It is commonly assumed that modern languages evolved from grunts and groans into the complex forms we know today. Over the eons, vocabulary expanded and grammatical structures became increasingly more organized. Yet the history of modern language points towards the very opposite. The complex grammatical structure of language tends to decays over time.

English is the newest of the modern languages. It emerged some 800 years ago after the Norman invasion of Britain, a synthesis of French and Anglo Saxon, with its primarily German roots. In French, nouns have gender, either masculine and feminine. In German nouns have three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. But in English nouns have lost their gender (apart from a few exceptions such as ships being referred to as “she”.

Similarly the grammatical case of nouns has been lost in English. In German nouns have four cases: nominative (subject), accusative (object), dative (indirect object), and genitive (possessive). We do still have these cases in pronouns: who, whom; they, them; she, her. But otherwise nouns don’t change their spelling according to case.

If we go back even further to ancient Greek, we find five cases. And in Latin there were six cases. Going back even further to Sanskrit, which is considered to be the root of Indo-European languages, we find 8 cases. The older the language, the more cases there were.

We see a similar trend with verbs. In French and German verbs change their endings according to the person—first, second or third person, singular or plural—e.g nous arrivons, vous arrivez, ils arrivent. And the same happens in German, ancient Greek, Latin and Sanskrit. There are remnants of this in English where we add an “s” for the third person singular—she comes—but other than that verb endings don’t change. Except in irregular verbs such as “to be” – I am, you are, she is.

In short, grammatical structure appears to decline over time, losing a lot of its complex rules and decaying into simpler and simpler forms. Left to human beings and the passage of time, language does not evolve into more and more complex forms; the evidence suggests the exact opposite. The most complex grammatical rules are in the oldest known languages.

So the question is: How did these complex grammatical structures arise? Where did the eight cases of nouns in Sanskrit come from? Or the variety of verb endings?

I have posed this question to various linguists, historians, and intellectuals of various persuasions, but no one has been able to give me a satisfactory answer.

Some schools of Indian philosophy maintain that Sanskrit was divinely inspired. And there might possibly be some truth in this. Erich von Däniken and others believe that thousands of years ago humanity was visited by ETs, who appeared as gods to the people of the time. He proposes that they interbred with human beings, jump starting civilization. However, as we now begin to map our genome and those of related species, we find no evidence of any such intervention; there are no sudden gaps or intrusions of new genes.

On the other hand, when we consider the origin of modern languages there does indeed seem to be a gap, a missing link. Could it be that visiting ETs noticed we were beginning to use language, and decided the time was right to introduce to us a sophisticated language with a complex grammar. If so, and if we ever do come in contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, we may do well to try communicating with them in Sanskrit rather the modern English into which it has devolved.