Author: Martin Morrison
An unquenchable thirst for knowledge
“Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” are possibly the two oldest questions that human beings have ever asked. We have been grappling with life, the universe and everything almost since the beginning of our time.
Our hunger to understand the movements of the planets, the changes of the seasons and whether or not the body and soul are one or two separate entities are just some of the questions that have kept scientists, philosophers and mystics busy researching, experimenting, discussing and debating.
What is knowledge?
“I think. Therefore, I am.” Right? If it’s good enough for Descartes, it’s good enough for me. Sometimes we are adamant we know something, but we can’t prove it to anybody else. We have dreams that seem so real while we are in them, but no trace of them remains once we have woken up. Does that mean dreams are not true? Surely, they represent some kind of truth. What is true is that we experience them.
The scientific method has brought us a long way. Not only have we gained greater understanding of the way the world is, we have learnt to harness its forces and to create all kinds of things. But in the end, the answers we gain from our scientific endeavours only lead to more questions. And that’s where we go full circle. We end up back where we started: who am I, and why am I here?
At the centre of the big questions is consciousness. We cannot see consciousness, and yet we are conscious. We cannot see other people’s consciousness, but they can share their experiences. Therefore, whereas any serious discussion around the nature of gravity or heat or energy will revolve around the things we can observe – the apple falling from the tree, water coming to the boil, or steam driving a turbine – any proper conversation about consciousness needs to be concerned with experience.
One collective consciousness, many individual souls or none of the above?
This is a key question. When we hear the language of spiritualists and many of the world’s religions, there is an assumption that each of us is a self-contained unit of consciousness, a soul, which is accountable for its actions. However, when we try to pin down the self, we come across obstacles.
Our bodies are in a constant state of change and eventually all bodies die, so clearly, none of us can say we are the body. Likewise, our minds can be changed significantly because of life events that have a major impact on our psyche or because of brain injury. Head injuries often bring about profound changes in personality. So, it is fair to say we are not the mind.
If we are not the mind and we are not the body, what are we?
Practitioners of meditation often report feelings of being part of something much bigger than themselves while they are meditating and of feeling more connected and in harmony with other living beings after a meditation session. Buddhists speak of a state of no-mind, a purer state of awareness which transcends our thoughts, memories, habits and emotions. And they speak of a concept of no-self – again pointing to a state of being aware without being attached to any particular sense of identity.
Biologists tell us that consciousness is a phenomenon which arises from brain activity, that when the brain dies, so does consciousness – there is no separate soul that inhabits the body or moves on after the body’s death. Advocates of artificial intelligence believe that programming will advance to the level that machines will develop consciousness.
Human experience: spirits, mediums and psychics
Human experience is the stuff of consciousness. If we are to explore the nature of consciousness, then we need to look at experience. Those who support the idea of individual souls will point to well-documented psychic phenomena as evidence.
While the majority of stories about ghosts, poltergeists, mediums and psychics are usually easy to pull apart, there are isolated yet profound exceptions that leave even the most cynical scientists scratching their heads and wondering what’s gone on. Therefore, for the sake of discussion, let’s suppose that some of these incidents are genuine.
How would we explain some of the more mystical psychic experiences within the wider context of consciousness, and do these phenomena lead us to conclude that the psychical world comprises countless individual souls or are we all reflections of one collective consciousness?
Can a cloth cap have a ghost?
Many reports of spirits include beings from another time or place being fully clothed or having other objects with them such as walking sticks or cloth caps, and some even report seeing other aspects of the ghost’s environment coming through – horse and cart, steam trains or other indications of bygone days. How can we explain this?
Who is the real boss in your mind?
Almost since the day you were born, you have been the victim of unconscious programming from internal and external processes. It is funny how those with the strongest minds and most forceful personalities will insist that hypnosis doesn’t work on them, that they are not influenced by others and that they are masters of their own world. Sadly, this is simply not true. It is a fiction.
We come into the world like a boxed computer; there’s an operating system in place but the software is yet to come. Language, culture, religion, attitudes and experiences all follow. The external programming that takes place is easy to see - parents, peers, family, teachers, religious representatives, media, art, dramas...the list, quite literally, is endless.
Voices from within
The internal programming is slightly more subtle and yet even more powerful. This is where we collaborate with our own growth...or downfall. Every experience is compared and contrasted with past experiences and measured against hopes, dreams and expectations. All these concepts are interdependent which means the sense of self and its level of contentment is governed by a boatload of phenomena that are mainly unconscious. Put simply, the unconscious chatter that goes on in our minds is also affecting our sense of who we are, the world we live in and our place within it.
Awakening: the first step
Realising that we have an internal world of barely audible mental chatter, thoughts, reflections, memories, feelings and emotions that are governing how we engage with people, situations and our environment is the first step to liberating ourselves from our programming.
But that is a scary thought. That means accepting that our religion isn’t the absolute truth, that our customs and beliefs have been inherited. What? How dare he say this! I am a [insert faith denomination here] because I genuinely believe it to be true and I choose it every day. Sorry. That is simply not true. I am not dismissing religion and culture and I mean no offence to those who value tradition. These are positive software packages that have been installed into our operating systems, but software packages nevertheless.
If you don’t accept the programming is happening, if you don’t acknowledge that many aspects of your attitude and approach to life have been determined by birth because of the influences you have been exposed to, then there will be large parts of your psychological landscape that you have no hope of unravelling. Your mind will read like a classified government document with large swathes of text and images blacked out.
I’ve been programmed: now what?
Just like the software on your phone, mental programming can be updated or overwritten. Even the entire operating system can be changed. The operating system is a different kettle of fish and not the focus of this article however, for clarity, you can think of it as the physical status of the person - how their brains are hardwired, physical health etc. If you suffer a stroke, you may have to start again from scratch with an entirely different operating system than you had before.
Let’s look at the programming process and how we can take control of it. There are a number of ways that we can consciously program our minds. Some or all of these will be familiar to you but you may not have thought of them as programming techniques. These are:
Prayer as a mental programming technique
Let’s look at the Christian’s “Lord’s Prayer” or “Our Father” as an example. This is just an example and I am not singling out Christians from any other religion. The prayer reads like this:
“Our father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On Earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day, our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us,
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
When a Christian recites this prayer, they believe they are speaking directly to the almighty, one God, that God will hear this prayer from them personally and that God can choose to respond to it. Regardless of whether what they believe is true or not, while they believe it to be true (faith can move mountains), there is a mechanism that will bring about internal peace and contentment - and better outcomes for the person in their everyday life. When we break the prayer down, we see that it contains several principles that are vital to growth and mental health:
When a person makes a conscious choice to be mindful of these things in their day-to-day life, the results can be transformative. In my mind, it is no coincidence that practitioners of the faith feel as though they are experiencing a genuine relationship with the living Christ and/or with God. These principles allow us to engage with reality more effectively. The result, a much more charismatic person. Note the root of the word, “charisma” - Krishna and Christ both share that root. We see the word in Russian as well - “Xarasho” (pronounced Ch-ah-rosh-oh where “ch” sounds similar to the “ch” in the Scottish “loch”).
This is not intended to be a religious post however, for those that feel I am chipping away at their faith, let me reframe it in a different way. My assertion that prayer is a form of mental programming does not have to mean there is no God but it does require a different way of thinking about God. Some believe that we are all part of the one living God, sharing a universal consciousness. By the same token, by tuning into our “bigger mind”, we have the power to completely reset our software.
Arguably, most people identify with their software, their ego identity, which means they spend their lives experiencing an identity crisis as one version of self after another is corrupted, becomes obsolete or ineffective, or completely collapses (mental illness, neurosis, breakdown).
The problem with prayer
If you have ever met a devoutly religious person who has encountered a crisis in their faith, there lies the problem. They have to keep the faith. Faith really does move mountains. If the faith is not there, the conviction is not there in the prayers. They become ineffective. Negative thinking sets in. This affects how the person interacts with their world and that behaviour affects their outcomes. It is a vicious circle. Prayer works well until we lose our most precious loved ones or some other dreadful event takes place.
That said, even when people lose faith or experience doubt, prayer still has some effect. Evidence has suggested that when we say something with our physical or internal voice, the subconscious believes it - even if our conscious self doesn’t.
What about hypnosis?
Hypnosis is a collaborative game played by two or more people. The person to be hypnotised agrees to allow the hypnotist access to their minds. The hypnotist acts a facilitator really to help the subject reframe their thinking but it is a collaboration. The hypnotist cannot make the other person do anything that person would not want to do. Does that mean the person has to give permission to be hypnotised?
We do not have to give permission to be hypnotised. We do not even need to believe that hypnosis is possible. If a hypnotist wanted to get you to run around the street naked, this is not likely to happen. You would see them coming from a mile away and you would resist the attempts to be programmed. The gate would be closed.
Hypnosis is happening all around us
One only has to look at how drastically fashion trends can change or other ways that people allow themselves to be influenced by advertising, celebrity culture or slick copywriting to see how much our mindsets are subtly being worked on by external forces.
When we agree to be hypnotised and we cooperate with the hypnotist’s instructions, it is possible for us to enter a very deep trance-like state, where ideas can be placed using affirmations, storytelling and visualisation techniques. The effect can be intense and powerful.
What’s the problem with hypnosis?
Imagine the least tech-savvy person in the office. They spend all day on a computer, opening window after window without ever shutting one down, never clearing their temporary internet files or their emails.
Every few months, they hit a critical point when their computers can’t function due to a shortage of working memory (for example). So they give a call to the IT person. The IT person logs on to their machine remotely and identifies the problem or fixes it. The problem is solved but it is temporary.
The hypnotist gives you fish but doesn’t show you how to fish
The IT person may give a lecture on best practice but if it doesn’t sink in or is not understood, they are given another call three months later.
So it is with hypnosis. When we agree to be hypnotised, we allow the hypnotist to help us fix a particular problem - smoking, chocolate addiction, aversion to exercise - but we are not necessarily any wiser in terms of how our own mind works.
What is auto-hypnosis or self-talk?
Once you understand the mechanisms at work, you can hypnotise yourself. Even by saying positive things to yourself on the way to a date (“I look great. They will love me.”), the mindset can be affected. This is why it is so important to be mindful of the words that come out of our mouths and the thoughts that we allow ourselves to dwell on.
Those who study a little more can learn how to take themselves into a deeper trance or they use music to achieve the same objective. Then they will repeat carefully crafted affirmations or listen to a well-written visualisation script, to reset their thinking.
What’s not to love here? Nothing it all. It is all good. However, just like hypnosis, what we are doing is going in and fixing specific issues that we have identified. We are not gaining a greater understanding of our mind. There are many blind spots.
Meditation as a route to mental programming
Let me first of all start by spelling out what I mean by meditation and differentiating it from mindfulness. This is a subtle, yet important point.
If we choose to focus all our attention on this moment, every physical sensation, every aspect of our perception etc., then that is mindfulness and yes, it is meditation as well. Meditation, in the strictest sense, is not something that is done. It is how other things are done!
Mindfulness will only go so far in helping us grow because if I am being mindful while I eat my favourite food or mindful while I practise tai chi, the focus is on the activity of eating or the feeling of movement through the tai chi forms. That is great but won’t necessarily deliver increased self-knowledge, wisdom or the meaning of life.
If I decide to practise mindfulness while I am lying down or sitting still in a quiet place, as my awareness “realises” that there is nothing to see in the outside world, it has to focus its attention inwards - to the mind, to the internal world. This is what I mean by meditation.
Moving mindfulness: making the transition from sitting meditation to engaged, moment to moment wakefulness
The effort of living versus the peacefulness of meditation - a false dichotomy
Many practitioners of mindfulness will recognise a feeling that while their lives are definitely enriched in a profound way, there is sometimes still a feeling that actually living life - paying the bills, feeding the children, going to work, dealing with situations - is demanding but sitting in meditation, on the other hand, is a refuge.
Meditation is not a happy trip
This is not the case for all meditators. Meditation is not supposed to be a technique for getting high or managing to “attain” anything. In fact, trying to “attain” is evidence of the very problematic thinking that the practitioner may be able to transcend with practice.
The reality is that the same peace that is available to us when we are in “zazen” sitting meditation is just a mindset switch away from us while we are in the thick of it. Sounds great, doesn't’ it? But it doesn’t seem very feasible when you’re behind on a deadline and your laptop is running painfully slow. Nope. You’re too good at your practice for that kind of trivia to affect you? Let’s imagine you’ve just lost your job or someone you love has been diagnosed with cancer.
The point is that nothing you can do in meditation is ever going to stop any of the negative stuff from happening. It is ironic really that when we look at one of the great stories of a religion that is strongly associated with meditation - Buddhism - we see the young Siddhartha Gautama being sheltered from suffering by his parents. Every kind of misfortune is hidden from him. One day he decides to sneak out of his living quarters and he is taken around the town by a chaperone where he sees poverty, sickness and death. Meditation will not stop poverty, sickness or death - for you or anyone else.
Likewise, in Christianity, salvation and the spiritual path are not going to save anybody from poverty, sickness and death. Jesus himself suffered greatly before, it is believed, he was then crucified, and he is the the father, the son and the holy spirit for Christians.
Positive actions in a negative environment
The point then is that it is naive to think that meditation practice or faith in Jesus is going to somehow ensure that nothing unfortunate happens to you or around you. That said, meditation practice and faith in Jesus may help you become more effective in dealing with life (as a psychological mechanism). By controlling our own behaviours, our emotional response and our mindset we are controlling several behaviours that give rise to outcomes. Just because you do have the right attitude, think the right thoughts and take the right actions does not mean you still won’t get a kick in the face. As Stallone’s Rocky character said, “It’s not how hard you can hit. It’s how hard you can be hit and keep moving forward.”
What I have tried to achieve in this post so far is to deliver a realistic expectation of what mindfulness practice or any kind of spiritual or psychological improvement practice should be about. It is not about achieving every goal you ever wished for or obtaining every “thing” your heart desires. If that is still how you think you will find contentment or happiness you are reading the wrong post. It that is still how you think you will find contentment, somebody lied to you and you need to cleanse that kind of thinking from your mind because it will only lead to frustration and unhappiness.
What can I expect from mindfulness then?
There are a tonne of social media memes that point to the real truth but it doesn’t seem to sink in for most of mankind. You may be able to have some influence on the outside world but the vast majority of what’s going on around you is out of your control. The sooner you deal with that, the quicker you can make a difference where it counts - yourself. Guess who is in full control of your self?
When people meditate for the first time, one of the first things they notice is the sheer volume of visual, auditory and sensory thoughts and feelings they are hit with. Of course meditation practice teaches them how to still the pond but these mental entities will still arise by themselves. So we are not in full control of our inner world either. The thing that needs to change is the self.
What is this thing called self?
The truth of self is “no-self”. Self is an illusion. At best, self is the overall deduction of who we are based on all memories and experiences up to the present moment, and our state of mind is the result of a complex moment to moment calculation based on the “self” variable, the desires and expectations of that “self”, its perception of what’s happening “to it” and how that perception compares with the desires and expectations that “it” has. That was a tricky sentence to write. It may be a tricky one to read so feel free to read it again.
How can that possibly be a self. Our memories are not set in stone. Sometimes they are not encoded properly. The editing can be terrible both in terms of what bits of perceived reality we choose not to remember and which bits we take with us. Memories often corrupt with time. As for experience itself, it is only ever in this moment, so we are relying on memories, which are faulty, for our grasp of previous experiences.
Personality is a cloak
One of the most consistent sensations that practitioners of meditation experience is the sense that all the things that the individual would usually hold dear and personal as "me" are illusory. They are just superficial layers that can be stripped away. One is not the body. One is not one's thoughts. Furthermore, one is not one's personality.
Surely this is all based on subjective observations? Well, yes, however there is lots of evidence that proves that personality is no more fixed than whether one decides to grow their hair or not.
People who have suffered brain trauma often exhibit completely different personality traits afterwards, and split brained patients who have had their corpus callosum severed to prevent severe epileptic fits sometimes appear to have two personalities under the same scull - one for each hemisphere of the brain.
Our personalities can be changed because of intense psychological events as well. One's personality can almost be described as the latest paradigm for understanding how to relate with one's world. Based on previous experiences and knowledge of the world, it is generated to create the best possible outcomes for the whole person.
For many, once they have matured into adults there may be no reason for that paradigm to change. Others may be forced to reflect and re-evaluate because of the experiences that life throws at them. Then there are those that don't know how to change. They break down, rebuild, break down, rebuild.
Psychoactive chemicals can change the personality, at least temporarily and often in the long term. Mood disorders come about because of changes in neuro-chemistry.
There's a point here. Whatever the unit of consciousness is, it is not the personality. There is never going to be a "spirit version" of me strolling through the corridors of Yorkshire trying to talk to a medium. If there ever was one, which me would it be? My current self, my ego, has evolved through many versions.
During meditation, identification with the superficial self dissolves. The deeper the meditative experience, the richer and more global one's consciousness becomes and less fixed to the body that hosts it.
Where does consciousness live?
If one's arm is chopped off, consciousness is still there. Consciousness is there regardless of the thoughts or lack of thoughts going on in the mind. So consciousness does not live in the mind or in the body.
When did consciousness arise?
This is where things get really interesting. Consciousness, pure awareness, has always been there. It doesn't suddenly appear at a given age although many exponents of AI would argue just that - that consciousness emerges when intelligence reaches a critical level. If that is the case, then the rest of this article is pointless. Many meditators would argue that there is a quality to the meditative experience that gives the practitioner a very direct knowledge that "this" is not something that can be reproduced. It IS life itself and it is universal.
If consciousness was present in the 40 year old, it was present in the 20 year old and it was present in the 10 year old even though placed side by side nobody can deny that the 40 year old version and the 10 year old version of the same person are so different as to not be the same person. So let's trace back further, to a 1 year old, 1 month old, foetus and beyond to the cell. Was the same consciousness in the cell? Why stop there? Is consciousness the "God particle" itself?
Gas cooker theory
Until recently, I used to think of mankind as being 8 billion gas rings on top of a giant gas cooker. Consciousness is the gas. When you consider the mechanics of a gas cooker, it is absurd to think that all these different rings feel so special and individual and want to fight against each other, compete to be the best, when they are all burning on the same gas source.
This analogy falls however because from birth to death, consciousness does not rot or burn or change. It is a constant.
Syringes on the ocean
So maybe a better way of looking at it would be to consider each individual life form (let's stick with humans for simplicity) to be a hollow vessel, a syringe, floating in the ocean. Now we have 8 billion syringes all full to the brim with the same substance - water from the ocean. From birth to death each syringe draws in more of the ocean and then once peaked the ocean water is gradually leaked from the syringe back into the ocean.
This means we are all connected right now but it goes much deeper than that.
What is time?
We all know that subjective time is completely different than objective time. How many times the world spins or revolves around the sun has no relevance is one is sitting in a dark room with no frames of reference. Subjective time depends on the perception of change and the rate of change. Five minutes can seem like a lifetime and time flies when we are having fun.
Defining time is very tricky therefore. It doesn't really exist as all we have is now. Returning to the ocean analogy, it doesn't matter if the syringe sucks water from the ocean now, next week or in 40000 years, it is still the same body of water. Therefore that body of water connects all the syringes not just now but forever.
Consciousness is timeless
Like the ocean, consciousness therefore can be seen as timeless. Your body is hosting it just as mine is and just as our great, great, great grandmothers hosted it. Same consciousness, different vehicles and THAT makes a whole load of other wonderful ideas possible.
If one's consciousness is at the core of all life and all matter, if it has driven one forward from the very first cell division, and if it is the thing that gels one with every other living entity that ever existed, does exist and will exist then those that claim to read minds may be telling the truth.
Telepathy may be either a fluke malfunction or something that can be nurtured and learned, a way of breaking out of one's own body and tuning into shared consciousness. Isn't this how hacking works when computers share a network?
Seeing ghosts may be the same mechanism. If time and space are illusion because consciousness is everywhere and always at once, then arguably one could be seeing through the eyes of another from the past....or the future.
If, as touched on by quantum physics, the way matter reacts depends on how it is observed, then perhaps telekinesis occurs when one hacks into the "consciousness" of objects on a sub-atomic level and changes their behaviour or even their placement in time and space.
It's mind-blowing but the truth is within you
The bottom line and the thrust of this article is that everything we know came from mind and everything we will know in the future will come from mind. It appears that the whole universe is within waiting to be unlocked. Scientists and artists alike celebrate great minds like Einstein but let us not forget that he was a deep, deep thinker - a visionary. Everything we have achieved in the material world from our knowledge of physics, biology, chemistry and the natural world has come from ideas first.
If we are really seeking the truth, we should be looking inwards.
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