The Science of Enlightenment: Consciousness as a Three-Layered Cake

(via Flickr ~ noblerobinette)

In my previous post I transcribed Session 13: Track 1 – The Pathless Land of The Science of Enlightenment series. In that talk Shinzen Young uses a metaphor of a “three-layered cake” to describe the journey from the surface of consciousness to the Source of consciousness. In this post I’ve transcribed the next two tracks so that readers would have more context of what Shinzen is talking about, and have more understanding of the usefulness of the three-layered cake metaphor.

Personally, I find that metaphor very useful as a conceptual model for my own practice. In this session Shinzen treated paranormal phenomena as if they were real, but without elevating them — a true sign of a matured teacher. Shinzen’s articulate description of the Intermediate Realms is an important reminder to everyone who are on a spiritual path.

I hope you find this teaching useful as you tread along the pathless land…

Session 13: Track 2 – Three Layers of Consciousness

Basically I like to think of three layers, although of course there are many subdivisions. The first layer is none other than surface consciousness — ordinary waking, consensual reality. The second layer is rather thick. It corresponds to what in the West is called, the subconscious and the unconscious. And then the third layer is not really a layer, but that’s where the metaphor gets a little misleading. But we could, for simplicity’s sake, think of it at least initially as a layer.

The third layer is, of course, the core of consciousness, the Source of consciousness. If you want to call that God, you can call that God. If you want to call that the Nature of Nature, you can call it the Nature of Nature. If you want to call it Brahma, which is the Sanskrit word for God, or if you want to call it the Tao, or if you want to call it the True Self, or the No Self — any of these words are completely legitimate.

The words don’t matter. The important thing, of course, is to have direct contact with it — direct contact as opposed to indirect contact. Nothing wrong with indirect contact, but it really doesn’t bring the satisfaction that direct contact brings. Indirect contact is when we think about our spiritual Source — we believe in it, we have certain ideas about it. Indirect contact is when we feel at an emotional level our spiritual Source — we have a sense of the numinous, we have a sense of piety, of Grace. That’s believing, feeling, it’s all great. But that’s indirect contact. If we want to have direct contact it means we have to go there. Where the confusion lies, in many cases, is with the experiences that a person has in the Intermediate Realms of consciousness — between the surface and the Source.

In those intermediate realms of consciousness one may experience various unusual phenomena. When we look at how these unconscious and subconscious has been dealt with in the West, it’s very revealing. If you look at the early history of analysis, psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, you have, on one hand, Freud who spoke about the unconscious as this dark cellar, wherein all of these ghosts and demons and cobwebs and snakes and centipedes are hiding — the repressed poison and pain of our life, this pool of poison and pain of unresolved past experiences and conflicts. There is a certain truth to this. The basic impurities — the cravings, the aversions, etc. — are sort of stored down there. And in fact, it is the existence of those impurities that forms the impeding material that prevents surface ordinary awareness from constantly touching the Source of consciousness. And so from that perspective, the path is not really a journey, but rather it is a cleaning out of that intervening material, so that the surface and the Source fall together. When we shine the lights of mindfulness, and when we pour the water of equanimity into any experience that brightness and softening agents seep down into those areas where the blockages are and things get clarified and dissolved. And so the surface gets closer and closer to the Source. It drops one quantum shelf after another, until finally there’s a touching, and that’s your initial moment of enlightenment. And from that time on, in ordinary life, one is always aware that ordinary experience is in contact with the spiritual Source of all things.

Another view of the unconscious though, would be exemplified by Carl Jung. For Jung the unconscious was the world of the archetypes — the world of the spirits, the world wherein angels and dead ancestors, entities, and spirit beings actually exist, for real. And it’s quite true. Some people when they make this journey from surface to Source encounter extraordinary experiences in that intermediate realm. Not only might they encounter spirit beings and entities, but they might have other kinds of unusual experiences such as the impression that they have psychic powers. Whether these powers exist in actuality or not, I don’t begin to comment. But one can certainly get a very strong impression that they exist. One may have experiences of seeming to leave the body — a literally floating out of the body and looking down and floating down the street and seeing what you’re neighbor is doing. One may have experiences not only of encountering entities but of having these entities sort of channel through one. One may seem to have the ability to heal, or to influence people, or to even know what people are thinking. One may seem to have the ability to know what’s about to happen. Do we really have these abilities? Can we really do these things in the objective world? To tell you the truth, I don’t know. But the impression can be extremely vivid and strong, and therefore it is significant. It is significant.

It is of the utmost importance to realize that by no means does everyone encounter such unusual experiences or special powers when they traverse that intermediate realm. Also, it is to realize that by no means does everyone encounter directly the monsters of their impurities when they traverse that realm. Some people traverse the whole intermediate realm from surface to Source and are never aware of anything other than very ordinary banal experiences like the touch of their clothes, or aches and pains in their body, or the feeling of the breath. That’s all that ever happens to them, and yet they’re able to go to the Source.

Basically, some people have very ordinary experiences for the whole path. Some people get weird and uncomfortable — events in the mind, body, and even visionary hallucinatory material. Some people get interesting, unusual, entertaining, empowering experiences. Sometimes you can have a mixture of both — unusually hellish and unusually celestial experiences, both may be involved as you traverse this path. So there’s a lot of possibilities. Different people have very different experiences in the intermediate realm.

Session 13: Track 3 – The Creative Nature of Impermanence

However, how one relates to these experiences is of the utmost importance, whatever the experience may be in terms of what we might call, “spiritual maturity.” And in fact, the gold standard, the litmus test for spiritual maturity, in my book, is related to how a person conceives of the events in that intermediate realm. The spiritually mature person treats all events in that intermediate realm exactly the same. They greet them with mindfulness and equanimity. The spiritually immature person develops cravings and aversions with respect to the phenomena of the intermediate realm. They have fears of certain unusual experiences, desire for other certain unusual experiences. They have fear they won’t have any unusual experience. One way or another there’s all sorts of preferences, cravings, and aversions that can develop with respect to possible phenomena in the intermediate realm. As I say, the mark of maturity is how the person conceives of that intermediate realm.

There’s a famous Zen story about a monk who is meditating and started to get real successful at his meditation so that he could actually sit for hour after hour and, in fact, day after day without even having to move. He got so deep in meditation that even the gods started to admire him. Now, of course, in that part of the world what they call the “gods” we might say corresponds in the West to like angels and saints and that kind of thing. After a little while these angels and saints would show up every day and shower flowers on his head and give him offerings and things like that. And this went on for several days, and then finally he just grabbed his stick and he whacked them all and he said, “Get out of here! I’m tired of you guys!” That’s one response, okay. What did that mean, whacking them and saying “get out of here”? And is in fact, that’s the whole answer to this issue of these phenomena. Well, I would suggest to you that’s part of the answer, but that might not be the whole answer.

In my own experience, after I’d been meditating for about five or six years, I started to have visionary material, very intensely. One of the interesting things about visionary material is that once it gets going it’s not necessarily limited to when you’re sitting in formal practice. That’s something that people that go through this phenomenon discover to their chagrin. Once it gets going it’s there all your waking hours often. So that means when you’re just walking around or whatever you’re seeing stuff all day. And in my case it was mostly, but not exclusively, giant insects. And they were very realistic. It’s not like seeing a static image. It moves with all of the motion of a living being. The perfect arthropod articulatory motion that you would find in an actual creature. These things, they move and they were extremely vivid. We say visionary material but I should say you can touch and hear and smell it too. That’s what I meant when I said that it’s extremely realistic, whatever its ultimate ontological status may be. In any event, that went on for a good year. And I was in school, I was in graduate school and I walk to school and there’d be giant grasshoppers greeting me along the path and all sorts of stuff, and I still function quite well. There’s no problem. It wasn’t like being schizophrenic or anything like that. It was just a phenomenon of that intermediate realm. It means that I had dropped into that realm and some material was coming up.

Well, what did I do? Nothing special. I just treated it like any other phenomenon. It’s visionary material, so you’d meditate on it the same way you’d meditate on the visual field. Like if the grasshopper is in front of you, as your awareness go to the upper right, to the lower left, how your visual awareness floats over the surface of the thing, and you try to look through it, not at it. So you have a certain equanimity, not to be either curious or frightened. The interesting thing is that the more mindfulness, equanimity, and cognizance of impermanence that you have relative to this kind of material, the more realistic it becomes. Not the less realistic. Until when you are able to experience these phenomena with complete equanimity and unbroken awareness, at which point paradoxically they become absolutely tangible. They become like the ordinary world. They become that vivid. At that time you might think that that’s very disconcerting, but actually it’s not disconcerting at all. Because you remember how I described the flow of impermanence.

Well, we’ve only described a few aspects of impermanence. One aspect of impermanence that I have not yet talked about is, the impermanence is not just a characteristic of consciousness. Impermanence is also the very creative flow of nature that forms and ferments phenomena into existence, moment by moment. The more mindfulness and equanimity I had with this visionary material, the more I was able to literally see how the flow of impermanence was molding that material. So at the point when I completely surrendered and allowed the flow of impermanence to expand and contract and vibrate, it was at that point that created these visions the same way it creates ordinary reality. That’s why the visions become so realistic. But you don’t freak out. In fact, quite the opposite. You have a deep insight by having seen how impermanence creates something that is obviously a hallucination. You now have insight into how ordinary experience — the surface consensual reality — comes into existence. I should say that it’s not so much that the hallucinations become real but rather what you formally called real proves itself to have certain aspects of a hallucination. You get a real insight into the creative nature of consciousness.

If one greets the phenomena that come up in this intermediate realm with mindfulness and equanimity, because the intermediate realm phenomena are closer to the Source than consensual reality, one has a wonderful opportunity to get a deep insight into the creative process — how it is that mind creates. The reason that the Zen people talk about hitting the deities when they come is that they don’t want students to miss that opportunity. They don’t want students to get tripped out on the content of that intermediate realm, and therefore, miss their golden opportunity to get an insight into the nature of consciousness — the nature of Nature. It’s a very empowering thing to have an entity come and shower you with flowers, but that is a trivial experience relative to the empowerment that you get when you understand how the Source creates all things — yourself, the flowers, the entity, the world.

The reason that in some traditions they call this intermediate realm Makyo, which means the realm of blockages, the realm of the devil actually. Ma means like the devil. The reason why such pejorative terminology is used is that it’s so easy to miss your golden opportunity. You could get so caught up in the wonder of the spirits, that you fail to realize how close those spirits are to the Great Spirit — the Source of all things. You have to look just beyond the spirits and you can see the Great Spirit. In other words, the third layer — the activity of the Source.

(UPDATE: For the concluding tracks, see The Science of Enlightenment: Intermediate Realms of Power.)

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