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Today I’d like to report to you some preliminary notes from an experiment. I conducted this experiment from around February until May of this year. I will run it again soon, for hopefully a much longer time. I’ll break up this essay into a few sections: The Experiment, Notes, and Findings.
“The only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual, and the only real revolutionaries are philosophers and saints.”
- Will Durant, historian
What’s the tl;dr?
Our desire for control exceeds by a wide margin our actual knowledge of our world (and ourselves). What we think of as consciousness is more mechanical and unconscious than we would like to think. Thus we are baskets of delusion. We can learn to experience the world more richly, and we can learn, slowly, what it really means to be conscious.
If that sounds interesting, read on. If not, enjoy the rest of your day!
The experiment required the following daily procedure:
- Upon waking, meditate. Focus on your breath, a constant reminder that you are a layer cake of systems. Autonomic systems. Sensory systems. Symbolic systems. Ecosystems. Celestial systems.
- As you proceed throughout the day, notice your perceptions and thoughts as if they are not your own. Place your attention approximately midway between the world and your mind.
- Whenever you realize you’ve removed yourself from this attentive state (and this will happen quite often), think or whisper “I am here.”
This procedure has been practiced in varying forms for centuries, across many different cultures and spiritual traditions. Buddhists, Sufis, Jesuits, neo-Platonists, and so on.
Russian mystic George Gurdjieff very concisely referred to this practice as the art of self-remembering. His student PD Ouspensky recounted Gurdjieff’s key insight in his book In Search of the Miraculous:
“You can also define the moments when you are nearer to consciousness and further away from consciousness.
But by observing in yourself the appearance and the disappearance of consciousness you will inevitably see one fact which you neither see nor acknowledge now, and that is that moments of consciousness are very short and are separated by long intervals of completely unconscious, mechanical working of the machine.
You will then see that you can think, feel, act, speak, work, without being conscious of it. And if you learn to see in yourselves the moments of consciousness and the long periods of mechanicalness, you will as infallibly see in other people when they are conscious of what they are doing and when they are not.”
If that is difficult to grasp (it still is for me), the more experimental question Gurdjieff poses is “What is the most important thing that we notice during self-observation?” Through direct experience and practice, we can learn for ourselves what that question even means.
And so for several months, I plodded ahead with this self-remembering practice. Below I’ll share notes from one of my most vivid days. Things got weird.
I rise out of bed and take a pretzeled seat on the couch in the living room. Ten slow inhales and exhales. My hips loosen with each breath, drawing closer to parallel. I feel my heart rate slow down; I grow more aware of the small muscle twitches in my calves, my hamstrings, my lower back. I close my eyes. I close them further even when I think I have closed them. The stillness begins.
“That’s the best I’ve ever seen.” “That’s the best I’ve ever seen.”
Over the past few weeks, this phrase has been a constant companion. In fact, as I have learned, this phrase has been in my life for years. I uncovered old memories of hearing this phrase while driving to school, taking exams, playing tennis, thinking in the shower, walking around town.
Back then, I didn’t notice it too much. Whenever I did, I pushed it away. My meditations taught me to simply allow this phrase to exist, to float across the mental scrim.
Strong open-mouthed inhale, strong open-mouthed exhale. Inhale, exhale, slow and cyclical. Fifty times. The biology of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and blood cells brings me to an early mystical tingle and lightheadedness. Carbon dioxide is expelled from my blood vessels, decreasing the acidity (and increasing the alkalinity) of my blood. My blood vessels constrict.
“That’s the best I’ve ever seen.” “Idiot.” “What are you doing just sitting here?” “That’s the best I’ve ever seen.” “He’s not even flexible.” "What time is it?" "How long has it been?"
The mind struggles when it has grown accustomed to stimulation, novelty, and distraction. It seeks it out in moments of discomfort. Especially on days in which the unconscious rumbles with activity, the mind wants nothing more than to pay attention to something other than its own chaos.
I remember, just let the thoughts have their moment. They are thoughts, but they are not you. Seems like yesterday was stressful. I had a feeling as soon as I got out of bed that today’s session would be … interesting.
Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. Inhale. Hold the breath for as long as possible. The biology of empty lungs and vasodilation allow my to sit comfortably without breathing, for minutes longer than I normally can. Carbon dioxide rapidly re-enters my blood vessels, therefore widening them, increasing blood flow through them, and reducing blood pressure. I'm feeling good. The walls vibrate.
I am here.
The other thoughts have drifted away, pretending as if they had never paid me a visit. The room carries a richer hue and sharper more surreal texture. Did my vision change? Or am I finally just noticing what was already there? Has it always been this quiet in this room?
But I remember not to make much of this. As one spiritual teacher once wrote, one cannot confuse hyperventilation for enlightenment. Minutes later, I complete my session and leave for work.
The city streets don’t feel as big and rushed and cramped as they used to. Everything I focus on has a foreshortened, hyperreal appearance. I can see the grooves, bumps, and divots in people’s faces. Their countenances more obviously project their joys and sorrows (or am I projecting my own onto them?). Distracted! Caught up in your senses and your reactions!
I am here.
Blink once, blink twice. Recenter the focus away from your mind and away from the world. Find that elusive middle. Does it even exist? “I Am That!” said Nisargadatta. “It is always the false that makes you suffer, the false desires and fears, the false values and ideas, the false relationships between people.”
After weeks of doing this, my predictable inner monologues and reactions about what I’m seeing and hearing around me are becoming less frequent. There is more silence now, enough to begin to experience the world anew. It’s hard to explain. When I see another being, I feel strong intimacy with them, even if they are merely a stranger. Old feelings of social paranoia vacate.
I stand on the Metro platform awaiting my train home. I look around and see a black, gray, and brown kaleidoscope of exhausted life. Glowing iPhones, old timers with newspapers, a few souls bobbing and rocking out to the music juiced into their ears. Everywhere I look, I see myself; when I see myself, I see the world. Some trippy dude once said that what you see is merely the universe observing itself.
Some minutes later I am home. I meditate again, this time without all the histrionic breathing. Just sitting calmly, with attention focused on a spot on the middle of my nose.
Novice meditators are known to doze off and fall asleep as their state of consciousness drifts away from what they are accustomed to. So yeah, I too rather suddenly fall asleep.
I dream. I lay in bed in this dream. Hovering over to my right is the devil. He smiles a rather vicious smile, baring his disastrous teeth. I instinctively recoil in fear, shielding myself from his wrath. But then I hear it.
“I am here.”
I unrecoil. I look at the devil and turn my body towards him, accepting but not embracing the prospect of death by his hands.
A small cherub appears above the devil’s shoulder. The cherub winks at me; the devil disappears.
I wake up. Something tells me I finally understand something about my life that I will never forget.
See: the tl;dr at the beginning.
Hope you enjoyed reading! Happy Thursday and until next time.