Today, interestingly enough is my birthday… February 22, 2013 and I am now officially 50 years old. I hadn’t planned on writing an article, but I had an interesting dream that others might benefit from. Rather than a philosophical treatise or academic type article, I categorized this piece of writing as a personal reflection. However, I believe there are insights that might be gleaned by others that could be useful in their own spiritual path within whatever tradition they practice. In the spirit of loving-kindness, I offer you my reflections and welcome your feedback.
I was lucid dreaming last night and for at least part of the time watching various phenomenon arise and fall away in my consciousness very closely. What occurred to me in a different way is how thoughts seemingly come out of nothing and go back to nothing. Ultimately, they all arise becoming more solid in a sense like a cloud that’s observable in the sky, but also like a cloud not something you can really grab a hold of or that hangs together for any length of time.
In a similar fashion, but following a different time table, subpersonalities arise. Constellations of various types of complexes held together loosely by perhaps an archetypal energy center. Like thoughts, these are observable by a larger consciousness and I could certainly hold them as objects in my mind rather than identifying with them as me.
As my insight deepened still further, I realized at another level that my personality or better self-identity is really no different although it is a phenomenon that persists for a longer period of time. However, like a river or other flowing body of water it’s actually constantly changing and not nearly as solid as we imagine it to be.
In all the cases that I mentioned, the worldview of Buddhism would advise to hold all phenomenon as a dream. While it can seem solid, unchanging and persisting, it isn’t really like that. Also, it has no inherent existence, but rather it’s existence is interdependent. It appears separate from other things in the world, but that is largely a matter of the mind drawing boundaries, categorizing sensory information, etc.
To put this another way, something like a house sitting on a street, what makes it a house? If we were to deconstruct it into the boards, nails and other pieces would we find something we can call a house? No, the house actually exists as a construct in our mind. Apart from our mind, there really isn’t an entity of a house. There are boards, nails and other parts arranged in some way for a period of time.
Similarly, in a stream their may be an eddy, but the water within the eddy is constantly changing. What stays the same is the structure or pattern in the water. However, where is the boundary between the stream and the eddy? In reality, there is only the flowing body of water. The eddy is something that we have separated from the stream in our mind. It’s existence is dependent upon the stream and is not separate from it in any way.
This is how I hold all the phenomenon that I spoke of above. It rises out of some kind of ground that it’s really not separate from. We give it a name and when different times of streams arise together, we assign that a name too. For example, the collection of emotions, thoughts and other experiences that I call “I” is not necessarily more solid than the eddy above. It’s certainly more complicated, but the self is constantly changing and when conditions change it will cease to exist as an observable phenomenon on the planet Earth.
What does seem to remain constant is the background substrate consciousness, the ground out of which all of these phenomenon are arising. In a Western context, I would equate this with the ground of Being and with Emptiness in Buddhism. It’s an emptiness that is not really empty, but undifferentiated pure potential. Perhaps a good way to imagine it is that which was prior to the Big Bang. The One with no other and therefore, prior to categories and thought.
Again, since all of this was coming up in a dream state, I am simply reporting observations and not defending what I observed. Indeed, I’m writing this as much for myself as for my audience because it allows the experience to penetrate more deeply and perhaps by sharing we will deepen our experience of reality together. At least, that is what I have in mind.
So… returning to my dream
I have choices about what I will identify with as me in any particular moment. It could be a strong emotion, subpersonality or some larger identity. What appears most constant, however, is the deeper awareness that is a witness to all of this and even this seems to have various layers to it as it is experienced from the inside. I have had everything that I call me “blink off” at times and surprisingly, “I am.” In other words, I didn’t experience annihilation, but was rather startled and even a bit frightened that… “Wow, I don’t exist!” In other words, I don’t exist in the way I thought, standing apart or above a ground of Being. The actual experience is an identity with the underlying ground. I realize this can be interpreted in many ways, but I’m just someone reporting an experience, I’m not laying any particular interpretation upon it.
In my dream, I had deeper awareness of the coming and going of various types of phenomenon in the field of mind, consciousness or whatever name you want to give it. However, I also saw my identity disappearing into the void and then arising again. In other words, like we have a stream of thoughts, I sensed or felt a stream of “identities” dissolving and arising again. One might say this was in the realm of the subtle and touching the causal. It wasn’t exactly a dream, but it wasn’t a full-blown samadhi outside of time. I guess the best description for purposes of discussion is a lucid dream experience that reflects a higher experience and that reveals some information about the self and how it could disappear and reappear like a subatomic particle in the field of Being.
The insights here for both myself and others is:
Thoughts seem to come and go largely unbidden according to causes we may or may not be aware of. What appear to be personalities within a larger personality, they constellate according to conditions and dissolve just as easily within the larger framework of a more persistent identity. What’s a little different is that even our larger identity is constantly changing like a flowing river, but it is contingent upon everything else in a larger river like the eddy I mention above.
Therefore, it is very conceivable to me that what I call “me” can disappear, but arise again according to causes that are unknown to me. As there is an impulse within the ocean for a wave to arise, so it is with this thing we call “identity” or the “self-structure.” I like the term self-structure because it connotes an organizing principle or causes. While the individual molecules in a wave on the ocean changes, the energy that gives rise to the wave follows cause and effect connections and it’s all very fluid. Is there really a dividing line between the wave and the ocean? Absolutely, not the action on the surface is interdependent. Calling something on the surface a wave is just as arbitrary as drawing a boundary on a tree that we call a branch. In reality, that boundary only exists in the mind.
What appears much more constant is what we call witness consciousness. From this observing space, I’m watching emotions, thoughts and even self and holding them as object. Therefore, they are subsumed in a larger subject and from this space I can label them as phenomenon rather than self. So that leaves the question of so, what is this witness consciousness. In other words, what is the sky that the clouds seem to pass through?
My sense is that as one goes deeper into the witness, one comes closer to a deeper more profound sense of individuality. I would identify the last frontier of individuality on a very subtle level of what is called soul in the West. However, beyond that is a point where the soul appears to open up into Spirit. The point where they touch, I would name spirit (lowercase). In reality, I think these distinctions are largely convenient for conversation purposes, the reality is a plunge into the ALL. One might think of it as a vast interconnected network where each deep point of what from one perspective appears to be individuality reflects the larger whole in it’s entirety.
At different points in my development, I have experienced this ultimately wordless reality in different ways. That is to say that I made sense of the raw experience differently or overlaid it with a somewhat different interpretation. Two popular and somewhat different ways to look at it are represented by Eastern and Western Mysticism.
In the East, the tendency is to say that Atman equals Brahman or that fundamentally your deepest self is God. Jesus suggested as much when he said, “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” This is a Hindu orientation, but more simple to relate to than a Buddhist one.
The Buddhists would be inclined to say that the self is “empty” of inherent or non-contingent Being. The self is like a ghost or the house above. The ultimate nature of reality would be Emptiness in the sense of phenomenon being empty of actually standing apart in any meaningful way from the all. Beyond that, Emptiness would not be a void, but rather an infinite field of one without a second beyond all comparisons. Nondual would imply that the phenomenological world and the Ground of Being are the same. In other words, “Emptiness equals form and form equals emptiness.”
The main purpose of this reflection is not to explain the ineffable, but rather invite the reader to do thought experiments, augment the reader’s individual experience in meditation or invite wonder and inquiry into the exploration of consciousness from the inside. I am not deeply committed to any particular interpretation, but rather prefer to leave the inquiry open-ended and not kill the dream or experiences by neatly classifying them.
A famous expression that I often bring to mind is that – “that which you are seeking, is causing you to seek.” That’s where I would like to leave this article, in a mysterious state of suspension, wonder, aliveness, fluidity and hope. In other words, rather than struggling to find yourself, meaning, love… I recommend abiding in “not knowing, surrender, awe and letting insight emerge from that place beyond you and I. A deep place of love, wisdom and spaciousness.