by Bob Makransky
“For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
– Corinthians I:13
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
– William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Mystics aver that humans’ original (infant) perception of the world is purer than that of adults, whose social training has obscured the true apprehension of what is actually going on “out there” by overlaying it with distorting interpretations. Evidently this distortion has survival value, inasmuch as adults are clearly abler than are infants; but on the other hand, according to the mystics, it also is the cause of all their unhappiness.
In the words of Chögyam Trungpa (in The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa vm II), “The process that takes place here takes place in a fraction of a second of consciousness, that lasts something like a five-hundredth of a second. First you have an impression of something. It is blank, nothing definite. Then you try to relate to it as something and all the names that you have been taught come back to you and you put a label on that thing. You brand it with that label and then you know your relationship to it. You like it or you dislike it, depending on your association of it with the past […] Then you immediately send your message back to memory, to the associations you have been taught.”
These overlaying “filters” which modify moment-to-moment perception in order to make it “digestible” – i.e. which make the everyday world seem familiar and sensible (as opposed to utterly ineffable, which is how infants perceive it) – are termed skandhas in Buddhist philosophy: vinnana (Attention); vedana (Desire); sankhara (Mind); and sanna (Memory). Consider, for example, the “life cycle” of a sensation: first there is pure Attention – the background or canvas upon which the sensation is painted.
Then comes arousal (Desire) – the initial phase of the sensation, e.g. the first pulse of an orgasm or smell of a rose or spoonful of tiramisu, which is exquisitely intense and sublime. Subsequent pulses or smells or tastes lose that initial purity and immediacy as the “=>I!<= am experiencing this sensation” (Mind) takes over (the sense of a detached self observing itself from a distance), and consequently the feeling dulls, becomes more remote, more separated from the true (original) sensation. In the final phase the sensation becomes a Memory, receding into the past. Actually, each individual sensation – pulse, smell, taste, whatever – goes through all of these phases in an instant; it’s just that it’s easier to see the progression it if you consider several happening in a row.
A similar categorization is described by Carlos Castaneda (quoted in Armando Torres’ Encounters With The Nagual), who uses the term “witnessing the Eagle’s emanations” in place of “Attention”:
“Imagine that at this moment you witness a group of the Eagle’s emanations. Automatically, you transform it into something sensorial, with characteristics like brightness, sound, movement, etc. Then memory intervenes, which is under the obligation to give everything meaning, and you recognize it, for example, as another person. Lastly, your social inventory classifies it, by comparing the person with those you know; that classification allows you to identify him. Already, you are a good distance away from the real fact, which is indescribable, because it is unique.”
So, what is this real fact – the way infants apprehend the world? And what does it mean to get back to it? Mystical experiences, such as religious ecstasy (usually induced by spirits such as Jesus, Krishna, Buddha), as well as psychedelic tripping, are ways to peel back some of these layers and deconstruct adult consciousness; or at least allow us a glimpse of how the pieces fit together (by slowing the process down so that it becomes readily visible). For example, if you go out in the rain naked while on hallucinogens, you can feel (are consciously aware of) every individual drop of water as it hits your skin, as a discrete event. On the other hand you wouldn’t be able to balance a checkbook because you can’t think – there’s too much going on to be able to focus that much Attention. The point is that adult consciousness is a matter of focus; whereas infant consciousness is a matter of awareness; focus and awareness work inversely (as one goes down the other goes up).
Infant perception consists of a flood of random, staccato impressions which bombard the Attention willy-nilly. This cavalcade of impressions consists largely of primary sensations – not merely physical sensations (sights, sounds, smells) but also feelings. Desire thus acts as a kind of scout which saccades the Attention hither and thither from moment to moment to take in what’s out there, like a hungry animal sniffing out prey: it is like a javelin which hurls Attention forward through time to reach out to a future. Actually, it is this hurling, this looking forward and outward (striving), which creates the “future”; thus we give Desire the keyword Expectation.
The action of Desire is what animates Attention, which left unto itself has no preferences or direction but merely abides and takes everything in indiscriminately. Note that Desire is not Desire for something – Desire is a movement for its own sake. Awareness naturally hungers for focus, and focus for awareness; and Desire is what moves Attention back and forth between the two. This dynamic – like an ouroboros snake devouring its own tail – is what keeps the whole kit and caboodle in motion; and it is the cessation of this striving (by stilling Desire) that produces the state of ecstasy sought by mystics.
Which sensation to pay primary Attention to (to give the most Importance at any given moment) is the action of Mind. It is Mind which creates a separated “self” out of the haphazard sensations apprehended by Desire (in the same way that you can pick the sound of your own name being spoken out of the indistinct murmurings of a crowd of people surrounding you).
For example, when you listen to sounds, particularly when you are very relaxed, sleepy, or tripping, you can distinguish between two phenomena: “sounds” and “listener listening to sounds.” “Sounds” is when you are hearing all sounds indiscriminately, like a tape recorder does; when all sounds are impacting on your awareness with equal vividness (action of Desire). This is how an infant perceives aurally. On the other hand, “listener listening to sounds” (action of Mind) is when you are focusing on one specific sound, and the other sounds are in the background of your Attention; when one particular sound is more Important than the other sounds, and there is a =>YOU<= there who is listening to it.
In order to be able to focus upon one thing at a time (by separating it out from – making it more Important than – its background), it is necessary to create an artificial sense of a detached perceiver who is perceiving – i.e., a separation between perceiver and the object being perceived. This is the action of Mind. Thus we can say that the difference between infant and adult consciousness is that the latter is focused through an artificial self. That is, the very act of focusing Attention on one thing at a time (instead of everything at once) creates a self – a separated =>I<= there in the midst of things – who is doing the focusing. Infants have no such sense of an =>I<=, a detached perceiver perceiving. All the skandhas are different filters which narrow this focus of Attention begun on the level of sankhara – Mind; and they enable the creation and sustenance of a (false, because impermanent) sense of a unique =>ME!<= in the midst of things which must be delimited and defended.
The “glue” which holds this ME! together is fear of death, which is the basis of Mind; i.e., the self is maintained by “snatching itself” back from death (non-existence) every instant; pinching itself continually to keep itself awake and focused on itSELF (separated). And at a certain point the glue just becomes undone, and the so-called self dissolves back into the undifferentiated nothingness (pure Attention) from which it arose (although in truth this happens every instant).
What sustains this detached perceiver perceiving from moment to moment – i.e., what endows this self with its (false) sense of continuity and permanence; what fools the self into believing that it isn’t actually dying with every passing moment (but indeed everything is just fine and dandy) – is the action of Memory. Perhaps you have noticed (upon awakening) that in dreams which refer to events which supposedly occurred earlier in the same dream, the “previous events” are improvised ad hoc, on the fly; i.e. there were no “previous events” in that same dream.
The so-called “previous events” which you (falsely) remember in the dream carry a gloss of Familiarity, which makes it seem “reasonable” (action of Mind – to make things seem reasonable) that this credible (albeit non-existent) backstory in fact happened. Déjà vu is another example (taken from waking consciousness) of how Memory can make sensory impressions seem Familiar, even when no such events actually occurred. Familiarity is what produces the motion-picture illusion of a logical, sensible progression of events from moment-to-moment (when in fact the truth of the matter is that the universe explodes into being and dissolves into nothingness with each passing moment of “time”). It is Memory which disguises the interstices by creating the false impression that the separated self had a personal history which led up to the present moment, just as it is Desire which creates the illusion that this separated self is moving forward through time to some probable future.
The problem is that sustaining this separated self (i.e., maintaining focus on a separated self with its personal history and probable future from moment-to-moment by clenching up against death every second), requires a great deal of energy and discipline. In truth, it demands a continual stranglehold on the Attention, what psychologists term emotional repression and magicians term Importance (clamping down on the self to define and delimit the self), which is quite painful and exhausting. This is why infants find it necessarily to sleep so much of the time, to temporarily relieve the stress of the alien adult consciousness which is being imposed upon them from without.
As Freud pointed out, this grabbing onto the Attention to create a sense of a discrete, continuing self in the midst of things is completed by toilet training: that’s the Great Divide, the capstone on the process of focusing Attention which separates infant from adult consciousness: it becomes of utmost Importance not to poo in your panties, and this clenching up becomes the basis of all social conditioning – the moment-to-moment internal dialogue with which Mind creates the illusion of an abiding, separated self and a Familiar world outside that self.
Thus, to make a long story short, the way that you create your own reality is by creating the next scene, moment-by-moment, out of whatever presents itself to the Attention, by selecting from that which is Familiar and Expected what you take to be most Important (“You”; “Your Life”; “Your Personal History”; “Your Desires for the Future”); and ignoring everything else that is bombarding your Attention in the selfsame instant.
Adults’ ongoing sense of a self – their feeling that they are discrete, continuing beings at the center of a world which is stable and real (instead of incomprehensible and overwhelming) – is achieved by their clinging frenetically to their “sanity” – their sense of having a separated self there – every moment they are awake. Adults have to be constantly wary, vigilant, and uptight – live their everyday lives in a state of unremitting anguish and suffering (albeit most adults have learned strategies of denial to pretend that this is “normal”, inasmuch as everyone around them is upholding the selfsame lie; or else to alleviate their pain by casting it onto other people – i.e. forcing other people to bear their pain for them) – in order to keep their “self” functioning. Otherwise, they’d go insane – lose their grip on their focus, so that everything dissolves back into pure awareness and they return to the state of helpless, vulnerable infants.
Of course, this “insanity” is precisely the state of ecstasy which mystics seek. However, mystics don’t pursue this state as their permanent, everyday consciousness, since they too have to lead lives in the so-called real world; and religious ecstasy is not a particularly effective approach to addressing everyday concerns. Rather, what mystics seek to do is to bring the experience of religious ecstasy (self-lessness) to bear upon their quotidian lives and relationships just by being more aware; i.e., unfocusing (relaxing their tight grip on their “self”) just enough to make themselves comfortable, but without losing their focus entirely.
For example, a basic level of religious ecstasy (of increased awareness) which practically everyone has experienced is called flow. This occurs when people’s Attention is so caught up in an activity (e.g. listening to music, playing sports, making love) that they temporarily lose their sense of a separated self and thus become one with what is going on in the world around them.
The point is that without focus there is no self – so the goal of magical training is to keep just enough focus going to lighten up, but without completely losing one’s marbles. This is accomplished by obtaining volitional control (Intent) over Mind, Desire, and Memory by paying Attention in the now moment, rather than reflexively ceding command to the automatic pilots of Importance, Expectation, and Familiarity (n.b.: Attention and Intent are two different aspects of – or two ways of looking at – the same phenomenon, like the distinctions between particle / wave or cardinal / ordinal, wherein the first-named property represents the static view and the second-named the dynamic view).
Importance creates the self. Familiarity is the weight which anchors the self, and Expectation is the sail which moves it forward. Importance, Familiarity, and Expectation all arise together, and must all be deconstructed together. The aim of magical training is to erase the self by deconstructing Importance, Familiarity, and Expectation. When Importance, Familiarity, and Expectation have been eradicated, then what is left standing is Intent.
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Bob Makransky is a systems analyst, software designer, and professional astrologer. For the past 48 years he has lived on a farm in highland Guatemala where he studied Mayan shamanism and astrology with his teacher don Abel Yat, until don Abel’s death in 2009.
This feature has been extracted from Thought Forms by Bob Makransky, volume III of the Introduction to Magic series and Book I of the Astrology of Consciousness series from Dear Brutus Press, paperback (346 pages).