Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hidden Dimensions

By Alan Wallace

Buddhist contemplatives throughout Asia have taken special interest in
the possible diff erences between the way mental processes appear and the
way they exist, a concern raised more recently in Western research by Gilbert
Ryle. 16 Specifi cally, they have found that although mental states and
processes often appear to be relatively static, upon close examination, all
the immediate contents of the mind as well as our awareness of them are
constantly in fl ux, arising and passing many times per second. A relatively
homogenous continuum of a mental state, such as depression, may endure
for seconds or even minutes, but that stream of emotion consists of
discrete pulses of awareness, each of fi nite duration. There is nothing static
in the human psyche, though habits may become deeply ingrained over
the course of a lifetime.
A second discrepancy between appearances and reality is that certain
mental states, such as joy and elation, may appear to be intrinsically satisfying,
but upon more careful examination are found to be misleading. No

mental state that arises from moment to moment in dependence upon
sensory or intellectual stimuli is inherently satisfying. Every aff ective state
is experienced as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral only in relation to a complex
of attitudes and desires. When these aff ective states of mind are passively
observed from the wider perspective of the space of awareness, without
identifying with them, they have no absolute, independent attributes
of either pleasure or pain.
A third disparity between mental appearances and reality pertains to
the fact that thoughts, emotions, and other mental phenomena seem to
have an inherent personal quality. When strong identifi cation with these
processes occurs, one may feel that one’s very identity has become fused
with them, and momentarily have the sense “I am angry, “ or “I am elated.”
But with some skill in observing the contents of the mind, one fi nds
that thoughts and mental images arise by themselves, with no voluntary
intervention or control by a separate agent or self. Psychophysiological
causes and conditions come together to generate these mental events, but
there is no evidence that a separate “I” is among those causal infl uences.
To be sure, some thoughts and desires do appear to be under the control of
an autonomous self, but as expertise is gained in this practice, this illusion
fades away, and everything that arises in the mind is seen to be a natural
event, dependent upon impersonal causes and conditions, like everything
else in nature.
As noted previously, all usual kinds of experience, both sensory and introspective,
are structured by memories, language, beliefs, and expectations,
which cause us to assimilate even novel experiences, whether we
want to or not. One of the names for the meditative practice I am describing
here is “settling the mind in its natural state,” which implies a radical
deconstruction of the ways we habitually classify, evaluate, and interpret
experience. The Buddhist hypothesis in this regard is that it is possible to
so profoundly settle the mind that virtually all thoughts and other mental
constructs eventually become dormant. The result is not a trancelike, vegetative,
or comatose state. On the contrary, it is a luminous, discerningly
intelligent awareness in which the physical senses are withdrawn and the
normal activities of the mind have subsided. 17
The culmination of this meditative process is the experience of the substrate
consciousness ( ālaya-vijñāna ), which is characterized by three essential
traits: bliss, luminosity, and nonconceptuality. The quality of bliss does
not arise in response to any sensory stimulus, for the physical senses are
dormant, as if one were deep asleep. Nor does it arise in dependence upon
a pleasant thought or mental image, for such mental features have become
subdued. Rather, it appears to be an innate quality of the mind when set-
tled in its natural state, beyond the disturbing infl uences of conscious and
unconscious mental activity. 18 A person who has achieved this state of attentional
balance can remain eff ortlessly in it for at least four hours, with
physical senses fully withdrawn and mental awareness highly stable and
The quality of luminosity is not any kind of interior light similar to what
we see with the eyes. Rather, it is an intense vigilance that has the capacity
to illuminate, or make consciously manifest, anything that may arise within
the space of the mind. To get some idea of what this is like, imagine being
wide awake as you are immersed in a perfect sensory deprivation tank
so that you have no experience of any of the fi ve senses, or even of your
own body. Then imagine that all your thought processes involving memory
and imagination are put on hold, so that you are vigilantly aware of
nothing but your own experience of being conscious. This is also analogous
to “lucid dreamless sleep,” in which one is keenly aware of being
deep asleep, in a kind of wakeful vacuum state of consciousness. 19
The empty space of the mind of which one is aware, once the mind has
been settled in its natural state, is called the substrate ( ālaya ). 20 Due to the
relatively nonconceptual nature of this state of consciousness, there is no
distinct experience of a division between subject and object, self and other.
Relatively speaking, the subjective substrate consciousness is nondually
aware of the objective substrate, an experiential vacuum into which all
mental contents have temporarily subsided. The mind may now be likened
to a luminously transparent snow globe in which all the normally agitated
particles of mental activities have come to rest. To draw an analogy
from classical physics, virtually all the kinetic energy of the human psyche
has been turned into potential energy, stored in this nondual experience of
the substrate.
This natural, or relatively unstructured, state is permeated with an extraordinary
amount of “creative energy” that has the capacity to generate
alternative realities, such as whole dreamscapes that emerge from a state
of deep sleep. To draw another analogy from contemporary physics, the
substrate may be likened to the zero-point fi eld, a background sea of luminosity
permeated by an enormous amount of energy. This is the lowest
possible energy state of the mind that can be achieved through such
straightforward calming practices, and the energy of all kinds of mental
activity is over and above that zero-point state.
For the normal mind, enmeshed in a myriad of thoughts and emotions,
this zero-point fi eld—substrate—of consciousness is unobservable, for we
see things by way of contrast. Our attention is normally drawn to appearances
that arise to the physical senses and mental perception, and they

alone are real for us. But all such appearances originate from this zeropoint
fi eld, which permeates all our experience. We are eff ectively blind to
it, while the world of appearance arises over and above it. When sensory
and mental appearances naturally cease, as in deep sleep, the mind is normally
so dull that we are incapable of ascertaining the substrate consciousness
that manifests.
The experience of the substrate is imbued with a relative degree of symmetry,
and in this vacuum state reality does not appear in a structured
form, either as a human psyche or as matter. This unstable equilibrium is
perturbed by the activation of the conceptual mind, which creates the bifurcations
of subject and object, mind and matter, which may be regarded
as broken symmetries . When the fundamental symmetry of the substrate
manifests in dreamless sleep, it is generally unobservable, and can only be
retrospectively inferred on the basis of the broken symmetries of waking
experience. But as mentioned before, as a result of continuous training in
developing increasing stages of mental and physical relaxation, together
with attentional stability and vividness, it is said that one may directly vividly
ascertain this relative ground state of consciousness and observe how
mental and sensory phenomena emerge from it in dependence upon a
wide range of psychological and physical infl uences.
The mind gradually settles into the substrate consciousness as mental
activities gradually subside, without suppression, throughout the course
of this training. And in this process, memories, fantasies, and emotions of
all kinds come to the surface of awareness. Our usual experience of our
mental states is heavily edited and processed by the habitual structuring of
the mind, so we tend to experience them in a way we regard as “normal.”
But in this training, the light of consciousness, like a probe into deep
space, illuminates bizarre mental phenomena that seem utterly alien to
one’s past experience and sense of personal identity. As an analogy from
contemporary astronomy, recall the million-second-long exposure of the
Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Astronomers discovered in that region of deep
space a zoo of oddball galaxies, in contrast to the classic images of spiral
and elliptical galaxies. Some look like toothpicks, others like links on a
bracelet, and a few of them appear to be interacting. These bizarre galaxies
chronicle a period when the universe was more chaotic, when order and
structure were just beginning to emerge.
Likewise, consciously exposing the deep space of the mind to thousands
of hours of observation reveals normally hidden dimensions that are more
chaotic, where the order and structure of the human psyche are just beginning
to emerge. Strata upon strata of mental phenomena previously concealed
within the subconscious are made manifest, until fi nally the mind
comes to rest in its natural state, from which both conscious and normally
subconscious events arise. This is an exercise in true depth psychology, in
which one observes deep core samples of the subconscious mind, penetrating
many layers of accumulated conceptual structuring.
Just as scientists expect that observations of the Hubble Ultra Deep
Field will off er new insights into the birth and evolution of galaxies, so do
Tibetan contemplatives believe that the experience of the substrate consciousness
off ers insights into the birth and evolution of the human
psyche. Drawing on an analogy from modern biology, this may be portrayed
as a kind of “stem consciousness.” Much as a stem cell diff erentiates
itself in relation to specifi c biochemical environments, such as a brain
or a liver, the substrate consciousness becomes diff erentiated with respect
to specifi c living organisms. This is the earliest state of consciousness of a
human embryo, and it gradually takes on the distinctive characteristics of
a specifi c human psyche as it is conditioned and structured by a wide range
of physiological and, later, cultural infl uences. The substrate consciousness
is not inherently human, for this is also the ground state of consciousness
of all other sentient animals. Contrary to the hypothesis that consciousness
ultimately emerges from complex confi gurations of neuronal
activity, according to the Great Perfection (Dzogchen) tradition of Tibetan
Buddhism, the human mind emerges from the unitary experience of the
zero-point fi eld of the substrate, which is prior to and more fundamental
than the human, conceptual duality of mind and matter. 21 This luminous
space is undiff erentiated in terms of any distinct sense of subject and object.
So this hypothesis rejects both Cartesian dualism and materialistic
monism, and it may be put to the test of experience, regardless of one’s
ideological commitments and theoretical assumptions.
While resting in the substrate consciousness, one may deliberately direct
attention to the past, gradually exercising memory until one can vividly
and accurately recall events. Some Buddhists claim that within the distilled,
luminous space of deep concentration, one may direct the attention
back in time even before conception in this life and recall events in the distant
past. 22 As far-fetched as this hypothesis may seem, it can be tested
with carefully controlled experiments, assuming that the subjects involved
are highly expert in this practice. By such rigorous examination, it should
be a fairly straightforward process to determine whether such adepts’
“memories” are accurate recollections from the past or mere fantasies.
Open-minded skepticism toward these claims—specifi cally, the kind of
skepticism that inspires testing hypotheses in the most rigorous way possible—
is healthy and appropriate for the scientifi c community. To the great
detriment of science, however, the ideal of skepticism in the twentieth cen-

tury has often degenerated into a kind of complacent closed-mindedness
about any theory or method of inquiry that deviates from current mainstream
science. Richard Feynman reminded us of the true ideal of scientific
skepticism when he encouraged experimenters to search most diligently
in precisely those areas where it seems most likely they can prove their
own theories wrong. 23 Heraclitus, the sixth-century b.c.e. Greek philosopher
known for his belief that the nature of everything is change itself, encouraged
this open-minded attentiveness to novelty: “If you do not expect
the unexpected, you will not fi nd it, since it is trackless and unexplored.” 24

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