The Magic of Consciousness
Dan Dennett

Using magic as a metaphor for consciousness shines so close to my heart, listening to this I’m encouraged, it makes me feel so damn good and reminds me of a few different things…

First and foremost what is fast becoming one of my favourite quotes from one of my favourite historical individuals; if your interested in Buddhism I highly recommend “Unraveling Zen’s Red Thread: Ikkyu’s Controversial Way" by Jon Etta Hastings Carter Covell.

This quote contains a diamond of wisdom I’ve not come across anywhere else, which I will not attempt to point out, though if you have found this in other places I would beg you, please share.

One quote from Mr. Dennett in particular stands out to me:

a certain scary even disgusting feature; it’s as if you’ve entered a factory and there’s all this humming machinery and there’s nobody home, there’s no watchman, no supervisor, no boss… it’s all just machinery

it’s not the emperor who has no clothes, it’s the clothes who have no emperor

Which validates the central teaching of Buddhism: there is “no inherently existing self” or “the self is an illusion.” (I believe it’s always important to add a quote similar to this one by Ajahn Chah, “Really, in the end there is neither atta[self] nor anatta[no-self].” Precisely because we are not dealing with something which can be said to concretely “exist or not exist,” as Mr Dennett illustrates, it’s similar to a magic trick, real magic, an illusions… an hallucination?

To again quote Dennett is the trick itself is to give:

"a name to a problem that doesn’t even exist… nothing further!"

and from a talk by Denis McKenna I posted a little bit ago:

"Consciousness is a hallucination"

"When you think about it, we are drugs"

Similar to:

Our consciousness itself and our subjective experience of our consciousness, and of life itself for that matter, is dependent upon neurochemicals along with many other aspects of our biology and environment.

Bringing to mind Mr. Dennetts, perhaps unintentional, support of another central concept of Buddhism -which is in fact simply another aspect of the “no-self” teachings, that of interdependent origination. Which is, that everything which exists is further composed of and dependent upon interrelated parts.

"Each individual is a cosmos of organs, each organ is a cosmos of cells, each cell is a cosmos of infinitely small ones; and in this complex world, the well-being of the whole depends entirely on the sum of well-being enjoyed by each of the least microscopic particles of organized matter. A whole revolution is thus produced in the philosophy of life."

- Peter Kropotkin

Which Mr. Dennett illustrates through an illustration of man composed for numerous tiny dots, saying:

about one hundred trillion cells, not a single one of those are conscious… how can a collection of mindless, unconscious, little robotic cells work together to create human consciousness?

"None of your neurons know who you are…nor do they care"

-Eduard Punset

An ant colony and the stock market works in a similar way to our brain/ consciousness, as does so much of life… perhaps all life:

Constructal Law: A Theory Of Everything - Studio 360

An excellent BBC documentary I saw illustrates this beautifully:

The Secret Life Of Chaos

"In this documentary, Professor Jim Al-Khalili sets out to uncover one of the great mysteries of science - how does a universe that starts off as dust end up with intelligent life? How does order emerge from disorder?

It’s a mindbending, counterintuitive and for many people a deeply troubling idea. But Professor Al-Khalili reveals the science behind much of beauty and structure in the natural world and discovers that far from it being magic or an act of God, it is in fact an intrinsic part of the laws of physics. Amazingly, it turns out that the mathematics of chaos can explain how and why the universe creates exquisite order and pattern.

And the best thing is that one doesn’t need to be a scientist to understand it. The natural world is full of awe-inspiring examples of the way nature transforms simplicity into complexity. From trees to clouds to humans - after watching this film you’ll never be able to look at the world in the same way again.”

The use of “counter intuitive” is very important and Mr Dennett uses it as a central reason as to why this is so hard for (some of) us to accept, if it were not counter-intuitive it would be easy, obvious! Which leads back to the Ikkyu quote and to one from the Shangpa Mahamudra tradition of Vajrayana Buddhsim:

So close you can’t see it
So deep you can’t fathom it
So simple you can’t believe it
So good you can’t accept it

- The “Four Faults of Natural Awareness”
Translated into English by Ken McLeod in Arrow to the Heart.

and Dennet says, speaking of a fantastic card trick:

"the boys have all looked for something too hard" - Mr. Ralph Hull

… like many great magic tricks, the trick is over before you think it’s even begun. In this case the trick exists entirety in the name of the trick “The Tuned Deck.” Moreover in one of the words in the name of the trick … “the”

He’s giving a name to a problem which doesn’t even exist… nothing further!

one way in which, I feel, this is so important is:

“What we know is… the internally created model… the actual real world is unknowable.”

- Dennis McKenna, PhD.
Neuroscience and Spirituality - 2004 Altered States and the Spiritual Awakening

Because we can verify with other people much of what we perceive and be reasonably confident that our perceptions are indeed and accurate representation of the subjects of our perception, however, what about when the objects we perceive are in the less verifiable aspects of our subjective experience? What about when the truth of what we are perceiving is perhaps as counter intuitive as possible, our very own “non-existence” just as “we think therefore we are”? When to perceive this gives rise to “the great fear”?

A little loose, but to tie in:

"Your body is a phantom"

- Vilayanur S. Ramachandran
Phantoms in the Brain - Reith Lecture 2003

Meaning, the very “image” we have even of our own body, all the feelings, ideas, sensations we have regarding it are representations in our brain, and why phantom limbs may develop after amputation.

To push this even a little further, this is where a lot of the practices of spirituality, such as visualization, ritual, somatic practices, panic/qi manipulation have salience, and act in a very similar way to, or hack the systems that are responsible for this:
(if you are working with the Heart Chakra for example)

Can you feel your heart breaking?

The relationship between emotional and physical pain goes both ways: just as physical pain-relieving drugs can kill emotional pain, so too can emotional support — for example, holding a loved one’s hand — reduce physical pain.

Research even shows that emotional pain can sometimes activate brain regions that normally process only physical hurt. One recent study of people who had just been dumped by a romantic partner found that intense rejection activated somatosensory brain regions once thought to be involved only with physical sensation.

Though these things stretch our far beyond this, just wanted to give it a little note.

I believe this fear is related to the fear of death and desire for immortality as per Ernest Becker. This has been a long held with Buddhism, particularly the Tantric practices which are often conducted in burial/crematory grounds and to quote the Dali Lama:

Awareness of death is the very bedrock of the path. Until you have developed this awareness, all other practices are obstructed.

And of course the famous Ramana Maharshi was bought to his realizations though an intense confrontation with death, his own mortality, of the illusory nature of the self or ego and the discovery of his, so called True Nature, his Heart.

Pointed to by Adyashanti:

When you rest in quietness and your image of yourself fades, and your image of the world fades, and your ideas of others fade, what’s left? A brightness, a radiant emptiness that is simply what you are.

This radiance is of course Buddhanature to Buddhists. It is held by many people of diverse backgrounds to be the opus of numerous mystical paths, though like blind men each groping a different part of an elephant, many describe it somewhatr differently. I’m not totally comfortable with this, that “all paths lead to the same mountain peak,” though I do think there is some truth here to be found clearly nuanced.

What I think is the people who have come to these perceptions have somehow managed to sit constantly within this threshold of being able to subjectively behold their consciousness itself, at the same time perceiving it’s illusory, hallucinatory nature while living though it in a synchronous manner.

Shinzen Young enters this state in real-time.

I wonder, where are the points at which we may be able to get an idea of what this specific aspect of our consciousness could be, very unsure on this but I move towards core-consciousness and the passive aspect of the active/passive attention dichotomy which has been illustrated to play a cognitive role in non-dual perception. I recently wrote few short posts (1, 2 & 3) about the two main forms of Buddhist Meditation, Samatha(passive/restful) & Vipassana(active/investigative) where originally practiced in union, and still are at higher levels of meditation. Which become unified in Shizen Young terms “do nothing mediation.”

Very interestingly he quotes/translates Maezumi Roshi as saying:

I guess you could say enlightenment is the passing away of the distinction between enlightenment and non enlightenment.

Quite interesting, because it would appear at a neurological level there is indeed no difference! I personally think this is always the case, we just don’t know it!

The work of Ernest Becker also gives us insight into why we might lie to ourselves about the true nature of our self/ego, at the same time pointing to why some of us who unavoidably see through our mortality and immortality symbols become artists:

… repression is normal self-protection and creative self-restriction- in a real sense man’s natural substitute for instinct. Rank has a perfect, key term for this natural human talent: he calls it “partialization” and very rightly sees that life is impossible without it. What we call the well-adjusted man has just this capacity to partialize the world for comfortable action…We can say that the essence of normality is the refusal of reality. What we call neurosis enters precisely at this point: some people have more trouble with their lies than others. The world is too much with them and the techniques that they have developed for holding it at bay and cutting it down to size finally begin to choke the person himself. This is neurosis in a nutshell: the miscarriage of clumsy lies about reality…The artist also takes in the world but instead of being oppressed by it he reworks it in his own personality and recreates it in the work of art. The neurotic is precisely the one who cannot create- the “artiste manque,” as Rank so aptly called him. We might say that both the neurotic and the artist bite off more than they can chew, but the artist spews it back out again and chews it over in an objectified way, as an external, active, work project…

- “The Denial of Death”

(Dennett believes one reason people cannot accept their own phantom like existance is because of the way they perceive it effecting (Dennett on Consciousness and) Free Will, which I think is a very good point, also that self agency and the belief in oneself is an important part of death denial.)

I believe the mystic takes this one step further and perhaps “swims in the waters the psychotic drowns in,” confronting on a personal, subjective level the very unreality of the identity asking the question as well as much of their own experience. Many methods from gentle to harsh which are employed to facilitate this very difficult journey to see through this magic trick which is just a name.

One this is accomplished the sense of self restriction, energy spent in maintenance and the related suffering which come from the unconscious awareness/suppression of the true nature of our identities. With the more elaborate training involved in the tantric paths a lot more psychological work is done, especially surrounding sex and death, giving one a furthered ability to live in this ‘awakened’ state, face to face with the vicissitudes and uncertainties of life, rather than re-repressing these aspects of our experience or regurgitating them as art or neurosis.

I wonder if what is occurring is that we have both active and passive forms of attention, of which we are aware (less so the passive) however the two are not fully integrated. The specific meditative training allows us to rewire our brains in specific way which, (among a great many other things) allows us to integrate these two aspects of our consciousness, which is the fruition of Yoga. One reason I like this idea is because it answers the question of “are all already enlightened and we just have to realize it” or “is enlightenment something we attain” (build almost) in saying yes to both, at the same time positing an answer as to why “enlightened mind” would ever become ensnared in “delusion” in the first place.

However, Buddhism doesn’t stop at personal enlightenment.

A monk asked, “What is the essential meaning of Buddhism?”
Mazu said, “What is the meaning of this moment?”

As it is not merely our own selves who are an emergent phenomena, but it would seem, all of life is, each object, each experience becomes a symbol of interdependence, impermanence and selflessness.

Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form

-Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya

Form and emptiness are one and the same thing… a difficult concept to grasp, there is no “thing” called emptiness other than your very self or any other form for that matter, it’s the fact that those forms are themselves empty, like milk and it’s whiteness.

From here one develops compassion for all beings and becomes a Bodhisattva.

Following the flow model of Constructal Law, it stands to reason if ones mind can develop a more economical system of action it will tend towards it, and those of us who can fairly well see through the fallacies within our own minds and the world around us, whether through birth, drugs or accident, would necessarily follow this path to it’s conclusion because there is more suffering in not doing so, we are forced to enlightenment.

The great modern Christian mystic Bernadette Roberts, who has stated her realizations as a Christian (though maintaining Christianity is a superior path, at least for some) are essentially the same as those of a Buddhist. In fact it was a Buddhist quote, found by chance, which catapulted her into her ‘final’ mystical state of awareness. He also states many people in the natural course of their lives, as the age, go through these same mystical stages, though may not even realize it’s anything unusual. This is because it isn’t, it’s the most normal thing in the world, it’s just our Ordinary Mind. People always look for ENLIGHTENMENT, with lots of bells and whistles.

What this does allow however is a far smoother “flow” to your being, much of the obstacles are removed and one often finds oneself in the “cosmic orgasm” of Unio Mystica. Though as Shinzen Young says here, the further one goes the less preference one has for either state.


Do you see the stars up there in the sky?”
“Do you hear the dogs barking in Dzogchen Monastery?”
“Do you hear what I’m saying to you?”
“Well, the nature of Dzogchen is this:
simply this.

- Dzogchen Pointing-Out Instruction

Finishing up…

This I know. That the only way to live is like the rose which lives without a why. 

You might ask yourself over a period of a thousand years the following question: ‘Why are you alive?’ And still the only response you would recieve would be: ‘I live so that I may live.’ 

Why does this happen? 

Because life rises from it’s own foundation and rises out of itself. Therefore, life lives without a reason—life lives for itself.

-Meister Eckhart

I stand completely amazing at Ikkyu’s words, such an original thinker with such a wild and powerful personalty:

Innate delusion is mankind’s original mind

Still, this IS our very lives; neither delusion nor clarity, it is wonderfully absurd.

"Absurdity is what I like most in life, and there’s humor in struggling in ignorance. If you saw a man repeatedly running into a wall until he was a bloody pulp, after a while it would make you laugh because it’s absurd."

-David Lynch

and I do laugh when it doesn’t hurt.


2 years ago · 10 notes

I woke from a dream of death
today’s amazing
death grass death rice death chairs
death death
asleep or awake

3 years ago · 6 notes · Source

passion’s red thread is infinite
like the earth always under me

3 years ago · 7 notes · Source

I try to be a good man but all that comes
Of trying is I feel more guilty

No masters only you the master is you.
Wonderful, no?

—  15th-century poems from the JapaneseZen monk and abbot Ikkyu. I love the second one. Just like in yoga, the only teacher is the teacher within. (via thatbettina)

(via thatbettina)

3 years ago · 16 notes · Source