Consciousness Dynamics, Living in Illusion

Dr. Charles Tart


Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 5, Part 1 of 18 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

CTT: Any kind of habit you can set up at the early learning stages of becoming more mindful is a good habit. Do watch for the point where it starts to become just a stimulus to trigger off the fantasy of being mindful, though, instead of actually doing it.

I don’t know how many times I remembered that I wanted to come to the present and be mindful, and so I thought about it, and fantasized about it, but I didn’t make the shift of attention to notice what was actually happening now. I got caught up in my thoughts about the now instead.

Ouspensky recommends changing “alarm clocks” when an alarm clock gets like that. Find something different that will trigger you off. So, for instance, you could set up a kind of conditioned response that every time you touch a doorknob, you’ll come to the present; and that might work for hours, days, maybe even weeks. But when you find yourself having fantasies about being mindful when you take a doorknob in your hand, it’s time to drop it because we don’t need to learn how to condition ourselves further. We’re already very good at that!

Now since I feel like you’re all being very mindful, I’m going to do a little review here at a conceptual level, but I ask that you try to keep some touch with the present while I get intellectual this way. You can do it by keeping some attention in your arms and legs; by looking around some, rather than staring fixedly at any one thing for too long a time; by noticing the quality of sounds as well as understanding the content of the particular words I’m saying; and in each of your individual cases, there may be some other particular kinds of sensations or actions which will help you be mindful, too. Experiment. What works for you?

The little sheet I’ve passed out – everybody got one? – has four drawings on it. If we were going to look at these, we’d say the order is upper left, upper right, lower left, lower right. I’m just going to review these. You’ve seen the first three before, and then I’ve added a new one that I created a couple of days ago when I sat down to do a formal meditation session.

My meditation went “poorly.” Instead of having any luck at all coming to the present, the goal of my meditation, I kept having the idea for this diagram that would help you guys understand something. So I decided that maybe my higher self is telling me the good outcome of this meditation will be a diagram. Or maybe it was just an excuse for not being able to concentrate…. 😉

The upper left corner diagram [figures presented separately here] – I told you this is my representation of one of the ways Shinzen Young talks about ordinary consciousness, or living in samsara, living in a state of illusion. You’ll remember I said that while some spiritual schools take an extreme position that the world really is an illusion, what the emphasis really is in most spiritual schools, as far as I can tell, is not that the world is illusory, unreal – that’s a metaphysical position, you can believe what you’d like to on that, but be careful about stepping out in front of cars! – but that the point is that we distort our perceptions of the world and ourselves so much that we effectively live in an illusion.

So on the left hand side here, you’ve got primary simple perception. Right now, for example, it’s bright. It’s warm. It’s quiet. You feel the chair pressing up against your butt and your back – very simple, primary sorts of things. Maybe the movement of your clothes against your skin as you move, the sensation of breathing – simple, primary sorts of things. What the Tibetans call Sixth Consciousness.

But we almost never spend much time in focusing on those simple, primary perceptions. When we do Vipassana meditation, we do something like that. But that’s not our ordinary way at all. Instead, we get into all sorts of processing of the perceptions that involves, on the one hand, elaboration of them into various thoughts and feelings and memories and hopes and fears and plans; and on the other hand, abstraction – that, insofar as you maintain some kind of contact with the world around you, it’s with higher level abstractions about the world where you “perceive” – quote, unquote around perceive – that we’re sitting here in a classroom. Classroom is an abstraction. It doesn’t begin to take in the details of this actual particular classroom at this particular point in time.

So we have an enormous amount of automatic processing. Generally, we have no control over whether it’s going to happen or not. We’ve been conditioned to have it happen. It happens. It runs automatically. And this automated process is working over your primary simple perceptions in both abstracting them and elaborating them.

One analogy we might use is that you’re the CEO of a major manufacturing company. You get some reports passed up to you, but you don’t keep track of every little widget, and where it is on the production line, and whether shipping has got so many boxed up and all that. You look at more abstract kinds of things like profits over the past month, or something like that. You have hopes and fears about growing the company, or avoiding a downturn. You don’t stay very much with the manifold actual details. That’s not a terribly good example, but it will do.

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