Monthly Archives: November 2021

Keeping on

Maintaining any contemplative practice is an odd activity by any “normal” standards. It doesn’t work with goals or results, it has no measure of achievement, nor any scale of proficiency. We are all, always, beginners – we never get anywhere. And yet the effects of regular practice on the practitioner could hardly be more profound.

Spirituality begins with a reverence for the ordinary that can lead us to insights and experiences that are anything but ordinary. And the conventional opposition between humility and hubris has no place here. Yes, the cosmos is vast and appears indifferent to our mortal schemes, but every present moment of consciousness is profound. In subjective terms, each of us is identical to the very principle that brings value to the universe. Experiencing this directly—not merely thinking about it—is the true beginning of spiritual life.

Sam Harris, Waking Up, Transworld Digital, p.206

If this is the kind of thing we can expect, then there is something extraordinarily wonky about the kind of priorities we are so often encouraged to accept as “getting somewhere in life”. Chris Niebauer, the neuroscientist, takes it further yet:

As a matter of background, contemporary neuroscience has one belief above and beyond all others, and that is that consciousness is localized in the brain. Because of this brain-specific localization, traditional neuroscience assumes that consciousness itself is also individual—that is, it exists separately in separate brains. In other words, I have “my consciousness” and you have yours, and in this sense the interpretive mind thinks and acts as if it “owns” consciousness…

…in spite of the best efforts and best technologies modern science has to offer, the neuroscience community has not located consciousness in the brain. Perhaps the simple reason for this is that consciousness is not there to be found. What if the brain is connected to, or a part of, consciousness—rather than a possessor of consciousness?

Chris Niebauer, No Self, No Problem: How Neuropsychology Is Catching Up to Buddhism, Hierophant Publishing, pp. 126, 129

One of the less expected correlatives of contemplative practice over time is just this direct realisation that the sense of self as an atomistic, separate individual is a simple illusion. There’s nothing there – we have mistaken the map for the terrain. The stillness of just sitting opens on to an awareness that has no boundaries as we have become used to them, no sense of beginning or ending either in time or in space – which have in any case become indistinguishable dimensions of no thing at all.

The odd thing about all this is that it is in its way the most ordinary of perceptions. It is not – for me, anyway! – accompanied by psychedelic bells and whistles of any kind, nor attended by celestial visitations or heavenly perfumes. It is as simple as breathing, and as close. Niebauer’s sense that consciousness is primary, not epiphenomenal, may sound exotic, but it is just how it feels.