Monday, October 25, 2010

The Fragmented Self

A few years ago I read The Dhammapada, translated by Eknath Easwaran. It's an excellent edition, with a beautiful introduction and insightful chapter notes. In the introduction, Easwaran explores the Buddha's meditative insight and experience of nirvana. He says the Buddha experienced something like a particle decelerator of consciousness, so much so that during deep samadhi the Buddha could actually witness individual bursts of consciousness arising and diminishing like quantum matter.

How cool! I thought. I wonder what that would be like. And what's in between those quantum flashes of mental activity?

Lately, as I've been sitting zazen (miles far from deep samadhi), I've been marveling at how discontinuous consciousness actually is. I've found that consciousness--whether it be visual, mental, auditory, etc.--is discrete; it's broken into distinct moments of experience, and any continuity is illusory, a product my mind "filling in the gaps."Kind of the way a film appears to be continuous, but is really composed of a series of rapid-fire frames.

Take sight, for instance. When I stare at my kitchen table, an image appears in my mind; but when I shift my gaze to the sink, there's actually a gap in my visual consciousness as my eyes jump from object to another. What I've been noticing during zazen, as I pay attention to how my mind works, is that consciousness is far from fluid; there are gaps, and it's actually my mind that's filling in those blanks. Sometimes, in the calm of meditation, I get the impression that my whole sense of self is a mental story that I keep telling (or worse, believing); a series of habits, dispositions, attachments, that I have artificially frozen and ignorantly call a solid person. What the Buddha called clinging to a view of self.

Slowly, after enough practice, being aware of this process begins to erode our attachments and ego. For it's hard to think of ourselves as continuous, enduring (permanent) entities when we are constantly observing how fragmented our consciousness actually is.

This has forced me to redefine how I view my practice. I try to view mindfulness as an extension of zazen, where I'm paying close attention to how my brain works, to how my mind creates and edits experience. Not for the sake of mere cognitive awareness, but to help me spot when I'm being reactive and caught in a cycle of clinging. For the more aware I am of my attachments while we're experiencing them, the less likely I am to get caught by them.

Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: robayre.

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