The Field of Conscious Awareness

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Imagine a sandy bay, where the curved beach line is answered by the curving onrush of the waves. If you were in a helicopter looking down from above, you would see the pale turquoise segment, where the water thins out over the gold sand. To the Buddhists, human consciousness is like that overlapping segment of sand and ocean. It is where two worlds or dimensions interpenetrate. These two dimensions could be called the inner world and the outer world. With our eyes we can look at that outer world and all its forms — our desk, the other furniture in the room, the window with its view. Yet even though we can feel our bodies sitting on a chair, or our feet standing on the floor, we have to also admit that there is a kind of inside to us, that is invisible but which is also where we are. And I don’t mean literally the inside of our bodies, the bones, muscles, blood vessels, organs and so on, because if a surgeon cut us open those physical things can be seen by human eyes. I mean an inner world that cannot be perceived by our five senses.

So we are aware of the outer world, and we are aware of the inner world,or at least of the place where we are looking from. It often seems as if we are sitting inside our heads, just behind our eyes. And our ever growing knowledge about the brain makes this notion more specific, so that it seems we live inside our brains. But the brain, and its processes, are physical. They are part of the ‘outer’ world. The way we ‘see’ the inner world, is through emotion. Our feelings roll around ‘inside’ us like a fantastically sensitive perceptive field. I sometimes envision them as a flowing fabric of midnight dark velvet. And through this field, we can be aware of the immanent dimension of the inner world.

Looking down again from our helicopter, we can see that the pale turquoise segment is not quite ocean, not quite sand, but something inbetween the two. And likewise, our conscious awareness is not quite inner, not quite outer, but something formed out of their overlap. As I already mentioned, the ‘code-breaking‘ symbol, that I will most often refer to as the ‘vesica piscis‘, can be used to represent these ideas:

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Potentially then, we are poised in this field of awareness, which both connects the inner and outer worlds, and is created from their intersection. We see tangible things ‘out there’, including our own bodies, but we can also draw on a flow of something that is ‘inner’. Out of the interplay of these two dimensions thoughts and perceptions emerge, which are themselves intangible but catalyzed by the physical world as well as modified by the inner flow, and these thoughts, images, ideas, scraps of half-formulated commentary live in this field of awareness.

The Tibetan term for the connecting field of awareness is ‘manas’, which translates as ‘intuitive mind’. Lama Anagarika Govinda, a western exponent of Tibetan Buddhism, described ‘manas’ or intuitive mind as: ‘that element of our consciousness which holds the balance between the empirical-individual qualities on the one side and the universal-spiritual qualities on the other.’ Moreover he wrote: “manas can only be conceived as the ‘overlapping’ of the universal and the individual empirical consciousness.” And he used the symbol of the ‘vesica piscis’ to depict this:

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So while we can see, touch, hear, taste and smell the forms of the outer world, we can also draw on perception from the inner world. Whatever words we use to label this — and there have been many — universal consciousness, source energy, the deeper self — this inner dimension is apparently as freely available to us as is awareness of the outer.

According to the wisdom teachings, we are designed to operate in relationship with this inner dimension. And when we do, we know its characteristics: we feel powerful, expansive, generative, happy. Because feeling is how we know this level. Often we use the analogy of feeling full, or overflowing, the cup that ‘runneth over’. We are filled with — what? It’s almost impossible to describe. No one word or analogy captures the experience, but I think of it as being filled with ourselves, with our authenticity, with our power. It’s when we feel utterly confident, unstoppable, sunny, enthusiastic.

Being happy seems to have become rather under-rated in our modern western society, where the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is mostly interpreted as the pursuit of material wealth. But whether or not we value happiness as a quality worth experiencing just for itself, there are other implications to accessing thisinterior dimension. For one thing, when we do feel full of the qualities of happiness, excitement, enthusiasm that the experience brings, these feelings shape the way we view and engage with that outer world. There are different ranges and intensities in all this. We can be feeling just quietly happy and content, sipping a cup of tea, and find a matching luminosity in the fire we are staring at, or the clouds passing outside the window. Or we can feel ‘lit up’ with passion and enthusiasm, and, being so fully alive ourselves, bring the world around us alive in a new way. Sometimes we have an experience that we call epiphany, when this quality suddenly bursts into our awareness, and as it does so, everything around us is transformed. This switch is like the sun coming out from behind clouds. Our surroundings appear lit up, a living extension of ourselves, a taste of home in the deepest sense. And this is because they are reflecting back to us the radiance of the flow.

The possibility of bringing the world alive around us may seem relevant if one is a poet or a painter, particularly a Romantic one — but what are the practical implications of accessing the inner world? Does it really make any difference at that level? The orthodox or traditional western view has been of course, that spirituality has very little to do with practical outcomes. It’s seen, in one form or another, as a kind of retreat from the harsh realities of the world, or as a form of meditative therapy. But this understanding has things backwards. Because the workings of consciousness are what determine the thoughts and perceptions that we have, the thoughts and perceptions that will then become the actions we take. Our thoughts and perceptions begin life as intangible forms in that field of awareness. And the Buddhist view is that the nature of these intangible perceptions and thoughts is determined by whether they are products only of the ‘outer’, ie, the sensory feedback to the brain and its calculus of reactions to that feedback, or of the interaction between outer and inner. In other words, have those thoughts and perceptions arisen from a reaction to something observed in the ‘outer’ world only; or have they arisen from the interaction of that observation with the ‘universal consciousness’ of the inner world?

A simple example is the evolution of my thought one spring when I had cut back two overgrown evergreen trees that act as a hedge between our property and our neighbour’s. In the new sparseness of the heavily pruned trees,

I could see that my neighbour had encroached a bit on our property. He had placed a bin of leaf mulch on it, he’d leant some old fencing on our side of the fence, and dumped ash there from his fire. At first I felt resentful and thought about retaliatory action. I’d shove the stuff back on to his property, or send a slightly cool email. But then I recalled all the things he has done for us over many years; how we have worked together on garden projects that have benefited both of us, how we are friends. And I realized that my first thoughts and ideas were reactive, and did not fit the overall context of our relationship and also did not fit with that inner dimension of myself. And I re-evaluated both the situation, and how to let it work out well. In the end, I did ask him to move his things, but in a matter-of-fact, non-confrontational way, explaining that I was going to store the garden bins there instead, and he offered to help cut down a couple of the thicker branches of the evergreens with his chainsaw. He also told me of his longer term plans for building a proper storage area, and strengthening the existing fence. And I saw that he had simply grown forgetful about what he was doing, or seeing it in the context of his future plans. So the situation worked out creatively, and I could feel as soon as my thoughts changed that they were more in tune with my deeper self. They felt right, and taking the action of talking to him was easy, not awkward.

So my initial reactive thoughts, based on my observation of the outer world, had needed to be weighed up in my ‘intuitive mind’ which is open to both inner and outer perception. And then they evolved, as I monitored how they felt. I wanted and needed to act in such a way that benefited the whole situation, not just my immediate desire to clear away the mess on my garden and have it look neat. I wanted to have my garden look nice, I wanted to get rid of the stuff, but I also wanted to maintain my friendship and good connection with my neighbour, I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, I wanted to be able to continue on in our relationship so that things were pleasant and it was easy to communicate and help one another out.

This incident, small and seemingly unimportant as it seems, begins to open up further implications about the functioning of consciousness. How it involves our sense of identity, and our relationships with others. Govinda correlates ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds with ‘universal spiritual’ and ‘individual empirical’ consciousness. In this sense, we are not talking so much about ‘worlds’ as about identity. In my initial petty reaction, I was definitely playing out a recognizable aspect of an ‘individual empirical’ consciousness. Some one whose irritation at her untidy garden caused by her neighbour, started to turn her into a slightly sour nag. Not much evidence here of that ‘universal spiritual‘ aspect But then as I weighed things up, more of that ‘bigger’ part showed up. And I took a bigger view of things, and my actions grew out of this bigger view, and the situation resolved creatively.

What’s significant here is that as my sense of identity expanded, I related to my neighbour in parallel ways. In other words, instead of viewing him as only the ‘individual empirical’ bit, some one who had encroached on my property without telling me, I remembered the ‘universal spiritual’ part as well -the person who loans us tools, lends us his truck, gives us samples of the bread he makes. I related to the whole of him, not the part of him. And that made all the difference.

Identity and consciousness are intertwined here. As well as a simplified ‘map’ of consciousness, the ‘vesica’ symbol also lays out for us a simple model of expanded identity. Because we are that ‘universal consciousness’, and we are also an ‘individual empirical’ self that lives in and is influenced by the outer. So right here, identity and the workings of our consciousness are shown to be the same thing. And what this also shows, is that identity and what we think and do are intertwined. To coin a modern well-used definition, ‘the medium is the message’ is true of this fundamental part of ourselves. This medium of identity and consciousness IS the message. Will determine the message.

Experiencing the relationship between inner and outer, or universal and empirical individual self is what is needed. Not theorizing about it. Jesus said, “Love thy neighbour as thyself’. And of course what he meant was, see your neighbour, friend, husband, business partner, or even your competitors and apparent ‘enemies’ through the eyes of this balanced interior relationship. This is very different from trying to be nice to people, or, even worse, trying to love people. Unless we access this inner self, we will be inauthentic in our attempts to like or love others. But accessing this dimension will mean that our actions will be shaped out of the creative current of love, and will be appropriate to the situation and to the relative closeness or distance of the relationship.

So the question is, if our consciousness is set up to function this way, if we are designed to be in relationship with both the inner and the outer dimensions, what gets in the way? Why do we often feel unhappy, stressed or in conflict with others.

And, paradoxically, what gets in the way is the very dual nature of ‘manas’ or conscious awareness, because it can focus on the outer world at the expense of the inner. In fact in western society, this is considered to be normal, and most of us have been conditioned to be more aware of the world around us than of the inner. Of course, many would agree, you should be annoyed at your neighbour, not thinking about how your universal consciousness sees things!

The Buddhists recognized that this two-fold field of awareness had to work a certain way if the power of consciousness was going to be used creatively. They knew that we need to maintain a balanced connection to both realms, because while this is the place where the two worlds connect, it can also become — by the same token — the veil that separates them. Depending therefore on what is going on in our conscious awareness the two worlds are joined or they are disconnected in our experience.

In the words of Govinda, the field of conscious awareness “either binds us to the world of the senses or liberates us from it”. The world of the senses is the world that we perceive through our five senses. The outer world. Being ‘bound’ to the world that we perceive through our senses means that we have stopped experiencing or forgotten the other piece of the equation — the ‘inner’ world.

In the west, generally speaking, we have not found the prospect of ‘liberation from the world of the senses’ all that attractive. We don’t want to become liberated from the world of the senses because we love the world of the senses! We love the world. And we don’t want to become disconnected from it. But this is not what ‘liberation’ means. It is not our senses nor the world that we are liberated from, but the conviction that we are trapped in them. What Govinda’s words mean is that to be liberated and freed up to genuinely enjoy life, to feel excited and vibrant and powerful, we must maintain awareness of both dimensions. For, ironically, our dedication to the world of the senses, without the corresponding access to the inner dimension, causes us to lose our enjoyment of the world — to become addicted or exhausted or jaded.

The greek God Janus had two faces: one looked back at the past, and one forward into the future. We can think of our field of conscious awareness in the same way: we can look out into the world of form, which is in some ways the ‘past’, what has passed, or what has already ‘formed’; and we can look into the future, into the evolution of what is still coming into form from the inner. But if we get taken over by the sensory information from the outer, we can get stuck ‘in the past’ — in the world of what has already formed, in reactions, in habits, in prejudices, in redundant beliefs, in old conflicts. We resist what the flow of the future wants to bring, ignore or lose sight of new solutions and instead entrench in conflicts and petty resentments.

Enjoyment literally means to put joy in. When we are consciously, viscerally lined up with the ‘universal consciousness’, we bring this quality of joy, and we infuse our world with it. And, it is this relationship — or the apparent lack of it — that determines how our lives will work out.

Written by

British/American poet and writer who draws on archetype to explore our identity. Author ‘Coherent Self, Coherent World.’

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