Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Subtle Locus of Attention

Getting back to the reincarnation thread, I wanted to toss in a reference I found in an article via Integral Options Cafe, called "Five kinds of self/self-knowledge" at The Mouse Trap, an excellent psychology and neuroscience blog. The article is on a complex human developmental stage theory that describes childhood development and the issue of "optical flow", which is how children organize their concept of the world around visual cues:

One surprising bit of evidence for the importance of optical flow for the ecological self comes from a phenomenon investigated by Flavell, Shipstead & Croft (1980). The phenomenon is amusing in its own right and has often been described: young children cover their eyes with their hands and say “You can’t see me!” Prior to the work of Flavell et al. (1980), this behavior was typically interpreted in Piagetian terms: since the child cannot see anything, s/he assumes that you can’t see anything either. Indeed, when these experimenters asked their eyes-covered subjects “Can I see you?”, most 2- and 3-year-olds answered No. Surprisingly, however, the same subjects answered Yes to many other questions about what the experimenter could see. “Can I see Snoopy (a doll located nearby)?” Yes. “Can I see your leg?” Yes. “Can I see your head?” Yes. These results show that “You can’t see me” does not reflect any egocentric misapprehension about other people’s seeing; rather, it is a clue to the speaker’s own conception of self. The child’s ‘me’—the entity to which the adult’s question “Can I see you?” refers—is evidently somewhere near the eyes. To be sure, that localisation is not precise: Flavell et al. got mixed results when they had their subjects cover only one eye, or stand behind a barrier with a hole in it so that nothing but an eye was visible. Nevertheless the implication seems clear: children locate the self at the point of observation, as specified by the optical flow field.

Putting psychology aside for a moment, this is interesting because it helps locate the "point" of self within the human experience as this place just behind the eyes, from which humans tend to observe their experience. This point happens to correspond to what in the yogic systems of India is called the "Ajna Door", a yogic center behind the eyes, often associated with the pineal gland at the center of the brain. This center has numerous mystical meanings, but its primary one is as the seat of the "antahkarana", which is perhaps best translated in western psychological terms as "attention", or simply the functional ego.

The antahkarana is the subject of a lot of western and theosophical mystical teachings, some valid, some not so much. If one does a little research, one finds it described in the teachings of Alice Bailey (whom I've never read), among others, as this article by Benjamin Creme describes. The general idea in these approaches is that the antahkarana is the "bridge" between the lower and the higher self, and that activating this bridge is an important step in the spiritual growth of the individual, helping aid the transition from being a rather helpless character lost in the process of incarnation, to one who is beginning to recognize and consciously make use of this connection.

That process is much simpler than a lot of these people would make it out to be. One need not be a mystical yogi to take advantage of this "bridge", since it is present in everyone, whether they are conscious of it or not. In many respects it's not even mystical at all, since it is the most obvious aspect of our conscious lives. The antahkarana, after all, is simply attention itself, as we experience it in every moment of our ordinary lives, not just in some heightened state of mystical awareness. It's the basic mode of awareness itself, regardless of the "state" we are in. It's just that we tend not to recognize that our ordinary awareness is rooted in a subtle "place" of observation, which is this "Ajna Door" behind the eyes.

In the modern, scientific materialist age we tend to see this phenomena of attention as a purely neurological function of our optical senses helping to form this basic sense of "self". And we tend not to actually examine this feeling of self, or where it is located, via our own direct experience. Instead, we tend to think of our self in conceptual or psychological terms, without being attentive to the actual observational pattern of our consciousness. In other words, we tend to think, big deal, so we feel ourselves to be located behind the eyes, looking out? And so what if we develop the habit of thinking of ourselves as located in this place behind the eyes, even when not using our eyes to see?

Well, I'd suggest that it's a bigger deal than we generally recognize, and much more important to our functioning in life than we usually make use of. Even the child recognizes that this basic sense of self arises as attention, located behind the eyes. If we simply observed this phenomena more closely, we would begin to notice that this "Ajna Door" is really just that - a doorway that opens onto the world we observe and live in. Not a doorway out of this world, to subtle worlds, and away from the physical body - though some may view it that way. In reality, it's the door for entering into this world, and into the body. It's the pathway the subtle self takes to connect to the nervous system of the body and brain, and the principle vehicle for assembling physical experience into something the subtle mind can comprehend and make use of and intelligently interact with.

One of the things that makes our brain function different from non-reincarnating animals is the degree to which it processes both sensory and cognitive information in a way that can be transmitted and made comprehensible by the subtle mind of our spirit-selves. That kind of processing power is meaningless to a non-reincarnating biological organism, and hence it doesn't exist in such creatures. For us it does, and the developmental capacity of these functions is a leading part of our evolutionary development, even being selected for in strictly Darwinian terms. Other organisms don't organize their cognitive or sensory processing as we do, because they don't need to connect to the spirit-world. This makes our brains function in a very different way than material nature alone would shape them. Instead, we are shaped from our own spirit self as well, even if we don't consciously recognize that this is what is going on.

If we do begin to recognize what is going on, we can take advantage of this capacity to a much greater degree than we might otherwise make use of. That is the point of understanding this conscious "bridge" behind the eyes, and where we are actually observing this life from, and what mechanisms we use to connect to the physical. The primary connection is a conscious one, of awareness itself penetrating into the physical through this "Ajna Door". That subtle connection is a key part of the process of incarnation for all of us, and it can be accentuated merely by being attentive to it.

Ramakrishna used to say that the difference between a spiritual approach to the world and a worldly approach is like the difference between a mother taking care of a child at play, and the child himself. The child is absorbed in the toy he is playing with, but the mother is not watching the toy, she is watching the child. The child is only attentive to the world of objects, but the mother is attentive to the child who is absorbed in objects. Similarly, the ordinary bodily character tends to be absorbed in the various "things" of this world. In some sense that is natural, because the physical body and its senses are a thing of this world. But the spiritual approach to the body is to be attentive not merely to the body, but to the mind which is attentive to the body. By observing the mind, we take on the role of the "parent", the responsible self who understands what is important in life, and who can take care of us properly. The child doesn't have that capacity to be responsible, because it is absorbed its toys, and it gets upset when the toys are taken away. But the parent can help the child see that there is something more going on that the toys, there is a bigger world, and a more enjoyable world, that centers on the loving relationship between mother and child.

That "parental self" is not merely the psychological superego, as Freudian psychology would describe it. It is actually our higher, reincarnational self functioning as the subtle mind, the spirit-attention which drives our real participation in this life. So the basic development of a "spiritual self" simply involves being attentive to our own minds, our "antahkarana", the bridge of attention between mind and body, between spirit and material, and functioning with the awareness of this process in the midst of the ordinary play of life, like the mother watching her child rather than the toys the child plays with. This is the route to human responsibility and happiness. It helps ween us of our obsessive attachment to "toys" of all kinds. Not that we have to do without toys, but we need to recognize that our attachment to them can blind us to the real nature of our life here, which is a spiritual one, not one of material objects alone.

If one could point to the source of most of humanity's recurrent problems, it is this matter of being "childish", of being obsessed with our toys the degree that we are unconscious of own own minds and what the mind really represents - of being unwilling to consciously assume the "adult" position of being attentive to the child in us, but instead all too often letting the child overwhelm us with his desires, frustrations, and tantrums. The child has to be cared for lovingly, which does not mean being indulged, it just means being observed attentively. If we were to be more attentive to ourselves in this manner, a great deal of foolishness could be circumvented, or more accurately grown past. That process involves awakening this "Ajna Door", and letting more consciousness into our life from the subtle world, which means letting our deeper self have more of a role in our lives, rather than just the relatively childish physical self have its way.

In the Indian tradition, it is often recommended that spiritual aspirants meditate on this point between the eyes, the Ajna Door. However, taking this advice literally is not terribly helpful. Screwing up one's eyes trying to gaze upon our "third eye" hasn't got much real spiritual value, and won't produce much results other than eyestrain. Instead, what is meant by this kind of meditative practice is merely to be aware of this subtle place from which the observing self enters into this bodily life. It means to merely be attentive to the mind that observes this bodily self and world, which is located at the Ajna Door, to be sure, but which cannot be seen by any conventional method of mind. It must simply be felt more and more in a natural way, without necessarily trying to locate it physically as a place behind the eyes. It will simply emerge naturally in that position as we become more attentive to ourselves and our minds.

This point behind the eyes is not to be confused with the locating of the Self in the heart on the right, as one finds in Ramana Maharshi's teachings. We are not describing the Self in that highest sense, only the ordinary subtle self in the strictly egoic terms of functional attention. Of course, a number of mystical yogic traditions do in fact equate the Ajna Door with the ultimate Self, and most of them are mistaken, in that they equate true Self-Realization with a full and complete emergence of the higher, subtle self. Such realization, while great and wonderful, is not the same as the kind of Realization Ramana and the highest kinds of jnanis speak of. Nonetheless, it's an important practical understanding that certainly does help make us more receptive to such jnana.

Nisargadatta used to say that it's not a good idea to teach non-dualism to children, because they are not ready for it and it might even stunt their development. In a similar fashion, it's important to note that non-dualism is not for spiritual "children" either, by which I mean those who are not aware of their own minds, but who are instead busily absorbed in their "toys". Such people can't expect to understand non-dualism, or make proper use of its teachigns, and they can easily become deluded if they try, and even spiritually stunted in their growth. First, they have to become simply and steadily attentive to their own minds, and allow this spiritual connection to the world to grow through the portal of the Ajna Door. The beginning phases of self-enquiry can serve this purpose if taken on rightly, as a process of simple observation rather than obsessive seeking for one's "self" as an object. Other forms of spiritual practice can likewise serve this same purpose, from the use of a mantra to meditative practices of various kinds, so long as the primary role of the mind is one of self-reflection, rather than obsessive concentration upon an object. To find out "who we are" requires that the one who enquires or meditates has established a conscious link to the sources of his own mind, which means being consciously aware of the link between the subtle mind and the physical body, and actually developing this, by growing the necessary psycho-neural pathways to the subtle mind. Once that is done, it's possible to explore the deeper links between the subtle mind and the universal Self, but without that, it's virtually a hopeless search that merely ties oneself in knots, and does not result in any meaningful spiritual result, but instead a kind of tamasic dullness.

Getting back to the antahkarana, this center behind the eyes, the "doorway" of perception, is what we normally refer to as the ego, the self, the "person" within our body-mind, the personality as it were. We refer to this very often in our desire to look into one another's eyes to find one another's souls. Of course there's no such "thing" in the eyes, or in the physical body. The pineal gland has no such biological function. But the stark experience of being a "self" certainly does have this feeling, the root of which is beyond the physical for the simple reason that we are beyond the physical, even in our most basic sense of self. The ajna doorway is the root this self takes to enter into the body, and thus in some mystical paths it's the root recommended for going beyond the body. However, the admonition to meditate on the ajna door is not properly a method for going beyond the body, since we are already beyond the body. Rather, it is a method for coming into the body more powerfully and effectively. The method of incarnation is one of our attention coming into the body through this ajna door behind the eyes, and to do so consciously, rather than merely subliminally - actively, rather than passively, as is the case for many.

To enter into the body through the ajna door as attention creates a powerful dynamic in the reincarnate personality. It allows us to be more than just a physical self going passively along with whatever the physical body and world offer to us in the way of experience. Instead of merely letting this body and world deliver up its quotient of karma, of causes and effects, the reincarnate character is able to infuse them with an intelligence that extends beyond the body, deep into the subtle worlds. The full range of one's subtle experience begins to become accessible to us, not necessarily in the form of memory or perception, but as conscious capability and interior strength. This includes the full range of intelligence and capability built up through our own past lives, and also those we gain by mere connection to the vast complex of the subtle worlds themselves, in which no individuals are entirely separate, but exist within a matrix of deeply connected patterns in consciousness, such that no one is actually a truly separate individual, but all share one another's capacities at various levels. The more one explores the subtle reality of our deeper selves, the more it becomes apparent that we are not a series of separate individuals, but a vastly complex Self with infinite shades and faces, and that we are each merely a single viewpoint within an infinitely varied multi-dimensional mind.

Attention itself has no personal identity, and even the subtle worlds' many spirits are not truly separate from one another. It is only in the material worlds that separation seems wholly real to many of us, and that only because of the unique confusion introduced by the reincarnational juxtapositioning of a subtle self with a material body. Material, biological bodies without reincarnational complications simply don't share this confused state of mind with us, in which we assume ourselves to be genuinely separate. Most animals, insects, plants, microbes, and other creatures don't make that assumption. They recognize themselves intuitively, without having to think about it (since most don't think at all in our sense of the word) as essentially non-separate, as simply interconnected pieces of a whole - in their case, a material whole, an ecosystem as it were. But humans don't naturally identify with the ecosystem, which is why they participate in it so differently, and so exploitively at times. They see themselves as strangely separate from the physical world's ecosysem, and also separate from the subtle spirit realms as well, thus leaving us tragically alone in the midst of this world, something not existentially experienced with much frequency by other spirits, or other physical organisms. We have a unique sense of alienation, therefore, in which the primal sense of separation is intensified in us to a point of often self-destructive conflict.

These conflicts account for much of what can only be called the insanity of mankind. Human beings suffer from the kinds of delusions that would simply not be possible were it not for our reincarnational nature, which means for us an existential structural conflict between mind and body. This is not really a conflict between body and brain, in the sense that without our reincarnational structure there simply would not be much in the way of a serious conflict between the bodily self and the mental, brain-based self. The physical brain is a part of the physical body, and without the reincarnational linkage to our subtle minds, our brain's thinking process would be very much in accord with the body's own process. Instead, we have to work very hard to achieve any kind of "attunement" to our own bodies, which is very strange indeed, but unfortunately true. The "mind-body" split we experience and struggle with is real enough, not a product of the imagination. And yet, of course, the experience of this as a disturbing conflict is a sign that our own process of connecting to the body and brain is incomplete, lacking in the fully grown neural connections from the subtle mind to the physical body we need. This lack manifests itself as a kind of unconsciousness in us, a lack of awareness of who we are, where we are, what we are doing here, and a kind of partial shutdown of the Ajna Doorway, among other structural defects.

Mental illness and psychological disorientation often have a powerful spiritual component in this sense, in that these represent an incomplete neural connectivity to the subtle mind. Of course, there are many purely biological problems that occur in human beings' brains and bodies which can result in a susceptibility to mental illnesses, even some that can make it virtually inevitable, and yet this can be greatly exacerbated, or relieved, by the quality of one's spiritual connection to the mind and body. This means growing stronger and more powerful psychic neural connections to the body and brain, through the nadis, which is not merely a metaphorical process of growth, but a literal one. This even affects the biology of the brain and nervous system, which responds in kind to the deeper patterning of our own spiritual connections to the brain.

Of course, it's also the case that the prevalence of mental illnesses in human beings - particularly in our modern age, in which over half the population seems to be on some kind of medication or other, legal or otherwise - is the result of the complications introduced into our systems by the reincarnational structure of our lives. The kinds of mental illnesses we humans suffer from are not unique, but they are exaggerated in us by the stresses we face in the process of incarnation, and also by the necessary transformations our brain has had to adapt to in the evolutionary process, relatively recent in our history, that has come about due to reincarnational forcings in our own evolutionary path. Our brains are not yet fully adapted in evolutionary terms to our own spiritual structure, and are in fact changing at accelerating rates due to the influx of spiritual energy through the connections to our physical brains. This results in stresses and strains that are not explicable by purely material analysis, and thus no purely material or pharmacological solution exists for them.

This process of neural evolution and biological growth is of course not even considered by science, and it wouldn't even know how to begin to study the process if it wanted to. Science operates by the assumption that our brains are formed by purely material evolutionary processes, and they presume its physiology can be accounted for entirely by such means. While it's understandable that science can't function in relation to forces it cannot observe, we make a terrible mistake in operating from scientific assumptions that presume a reductionist material reality to our own living experience. Our experience simply is not material in nature, and anyone examining their own mind can confirm this. Nor can we ignore the reality that our spiritual nature influences the physical brain and its development, for better and worse. Not all our physical problems are rooted in the spiritual dimension, but most of our psychological problems are. And even our ability to creatively deal with physical problems is rooted in the spiritual dimension directly. Even science takes advantage of the unique creative intelligence that is available to us through our spiritual natures, and even though scientists tend to deny the reality of the subtle mind, they make use of it in any case, in the course of their concentrated study of the physical world from the perspective of the analytical mind.

As mentioned before, the ecological crises we face today are also largely a result of our struggles with incarnation, and of our own challenges in developing a truly healthy connection to the physical world, meaning first of all to our own physical bodies. This requires a spiritual solution, not a political one, except to the degree that our politics are rooted in spirit. And most of all, this requires the development of a healthy antahkarana, a healthy sense of our own spiritual ego, and its ability to function as a proper, conscious bridge from the spirit realm to the physical world. This simply means assuming an active, conscious relationship to one's own mind, rather than a passive, object-oriented and thus subliminal relationship to our minds. Practical solutions can only come about through spiritual means, because our relationship to our own ecosystem is fundamentally a spiritual one, and not a material one. We are not a part of the material ecosystem, if truth be told. We are above and beyond it. We are entering into this earthly ecosystem as foreigners, and not just as any foreigner, but as extremely powerful conquering invaders. We are the alien invaders who have "taken over" this planet. That does not make us bad guys, it's just how it works here for us. The world was created for that purpose in the first place, so it's not as if we should feel ashamed. We just need to learn how to do it right, because if we do, we can be of tremendous benefit to this world and even this entire material universe, as it can be of benefit to us, even especially to our own spiritual growth. Getting it right is therefore extremely important to the spiritual purposes of our birth and ongoing process. And fortunately, getting it right isn't really as hard as it may appear on the material plane itself. It's actually a fairly simple spiritual process that only requires a great deal of patience, persistence, and love. Being attentive to our own mind's nature is the only thing it really requires, and from that flows a natural process of human responsibility. People are starting to get that point, in many big and small ways. This little blog of mine is just one of the many voices pointing this out, and describing the process as it unfolds. The details in everyone's case may always be different, but the essential process is universally coincident, because in reality we really are the same multi-faceted consciousness working through the same set of challenges.


Eric Wayne Mix, DO said...

Your blog is like a lens, helping me to focus my awareness and understanding of all of this. Thank you!
Eric :-)

kiran kumar yadav bommanaboena said...

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