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The Study of Our Own Nature

The following was part of a recent discussion regarding how to study our own nature. There are references to XXXXXXXXXXX [Note] (see "Personal History" also in this Personal Notes section) and to the book "In Search of the Miraculous" (ISOTM) by P.D. Ouspensky. The correspondent had familiarity with both. I have added a few [notes] here for clarification and to protect the privacy of the correspondent.

    You ask me how I study my nature and you ask for an example of how I use book 1, book 2, and book 3 [of The Ethics] in the process of studying my emotions. My immediate thought is to take a recent situation in which I experienced a strong negative emotion and to try to put together the sequence in which I came to separate the various parts of the confusion involved in my own imagination with regard to that event and then to offer that sequence to you expressed in the words from the above books which I did actually track through and which included also books 4 and 5. This seems like a "reasonable" approach but I'm going to try to distract your attention from it without giving it up entirely (I use the word "reasonable" here in the ordinary way which actually has a meaning closer to "readily imagined" than to anything having to do with Reason as Spinoza uses the term.)

    Earlier in your email you mentioned that your recent focus is on working to understand the idea of God and this Spinoza points out in several places in his writings is the idea we must put first and it is only through this idea that we can come to know directly the actual "Union EXISTING (not that "can" exist, but that does actually exist) between the mind and the whole of Nature." This of course seems impossible so we ignore it and proceed to accumulate knowledge about "objects of sensation" (see E2P10Corr, Note.)

    Now, to continue the effort to distract your attention from examples which can only be given in terms of "objects of sensation", do you remember when Ouspensky described a kind of visual aid involving a line and arrowheads for helping to get the idea of Self-Remembering? (See the first part of chapter 7 of "In Search of....")

[NOTE: In describing and trying to explain "levels of consciousness" as related to self-observation Ouspensky wrote that Gurdjieff had said;

"... you do not remember yourselves (He gave particular emphasis to these words.) ... In order to really observe oneself one must first of all remember oneself. (He again emphasized these words.)"

Ouspensky goes on

"... I had previously made certain experiments in stopping thought which is mentioned in books on Yoga practices. ...[Self-Remembering] was almost the same thing with the one difference that in stopping thoughts attention is wholly directed towards the effort of not admitting thoughts, while in self-remembering attention becomes divided, one part of it is directed towards the same effort, and the other part to the feeling of self. This last realization enabled me to come to a certain, possibly a very incomplete, definition of Self-Remembering, which nevertheless proved to be very useful in practice. I am speaking of the division of attention which is the characteristic feature of self-remembering. I represented it to myself in the following way: When I observe something, my attention is directed towards what I observe --a line with one arrowhead:

I -------------> the observed phenomenon.

When at the same time, I try to remember myself, my attention is directed both towards the object observed and towards myself. A second arrowhead appears on the line:

I <------------> the observed phenomenon.

Having defined this I saw that the problem consisted in directing attention on oneself without weakening or obliterating the attention directed on something else. Moreover this something else could as well be within me as outside me."]

Ordinarily, both Spinoza and Ouspensky point out, our attention is focused in one direction only and that is on what Spinoza refers to as the "objects of sensation." Any example I might offer, the words you are reading here, even any actual emotional experience that you encounter, all of these involve focus in one direction --toward things "external" (even if they are things which we say are "within" us such as an emotion.) Recall that Self-Remembering is a level of Consciousness while self-observation is something entirely different. As a level of consciousness Self-Remembering is below Objective Consciousness while it is above the level of "waking" consciousness at which level we live our ordinary day-to-day lives (this is akin to Spinoza's "dreaming with our eye's open"), and this level is in turn only above the level of actual sleep (see the entirety of chapter 8 of ISOTM.)

    Self-Remembering, as Ouspensky described it in words and images, involves keeping our attention on the observed phenomenon toward which the ordinary arrowhead points while at the same time bringing to our attention "I". This "I" is in an entirely different "direction" and of course it is not a direction in space such as the pointing of the second arrowhead in the line of attention image. You cannot see or form any image of "I" yet you can "feel" it in a non-sensual sense which sounds like nonsense if you get the sense of the term (by which I mean, these "terms" are just sense objects at one end of the two-headed arrow of attention used to refer to the "I" at the other end only in the image used, not in Reality.)

    But, you might ask, how can I use this idea? (if in fact there is an idea here, for it may appear as just so many words and images.) In the diagram or image of the arrow of attention, where would you place your "imagination" as Spinoza defines it? Is your imagination "within" you or is it "external" to you? Think of your experience of the many emotions you felt in the recent situation [NOTE: we had been discussing this in earlier emails], and your imagination of yourself in relation to them. My guess would be that your attention was intensely focused on these phenomena, at least that is what I observe in my own similar situations. I usually have a vague notion that my "imagination" is somehow involved in these situations but with my earnest attention focused on these phenomena only, the key fact that is escaping me is that these phenomena ARE my imagination! As soon as "I" Remember Myself, it becomes clear that Understanding and Imagination are entirely different "things" and that the "I" IS my Understanding, which is not my body nor any confused ideas involving the modifications of my body as produced through my senses contacting other bodies in motion and rest! This change to a higher level of consciousness is for me an abrupt experience but I cannot offer any arrangement of words or images, which can actually serve as an "example of Understanding." Why is this change abrupt and why can I not gradually put together Spinoza's words and images with my experiences to come to this higher level?

    For me, at this stage in my development, this abrupt change seems to come when I go ahead and focus my attention on an emotion or other external phenomenon and try to separate these things into simpler specific parts, not just generalized names or categories, although these may come up at first in my imagination. When I do this I try to relate the feelings and objects by using the words and images from Spinoza's Ethics and his other writings which I study often, along with some from other schools of thought about which I also read and study. Now, by a mechanism unknown to me, that I can only describe as "sudden awakening" (because it is always a sharp change) in the midst of this focus of attention on phenomenon, "I" Remember Myself, that is my level of consciousness changes and I now see all that has been going on in my imagination for what it is, mere motions of the parts of my body, separate from any other actual bodies that may be involved (see E5P2.) At this level of consciousness there is a direct experience of Eternity and The Infinite while at the same "time" the phenomenon that I now see to be the motion and rest of my own body "continues."

    Several stories and examples come to my mind at this point and although they may appear as just an odd collection of bits and pieces of my imagination which come from reading various books or from stories related by other people still, it may be useful to offer them to you because they have become associated in me with this "sudden awakening" (which, by the way, is a phrase sometimes used in Zen to describe the experience of "Satori" which I mentioned in an earlier email.)

    One example that comes to mind and with which you may be familiar is the technique of "averted vision" used while trying to observe a faint object with our eyes. If we are trying to observe a faint object by staring directly at it we often cannot see it but we may become aware on occasion that as our eye moves around we sometimes see the object more distinctly for a moment and that it again dims or disappears when we try to look directly at it. The usual explanation is that the two different types of light sensor cells in the retina of the eye are not distributed evenly but rather the "cone" type are most dense in the central part of the retina and we use them most often when there is plenty of light available and these allow us to differentiate the apparent colors of things. These cone cells and their connecting nerves make us practically blind when the light is dim. The other types of cells, "rods" are much more sensitive to light but they do not distinguish colors, only levels of light. These cells are found more densely outside of the center of vision rather than in the center where the cones are denser.

    Now, habit and good daylight conditions, lead us to believe that staring directly at an object will allow us to see it most clearly but when the amount of light is too low we fail to realize that we are not seeing some objects because we stare directly at them. By learning to resist the habit of positioning our eye so as to bring the image of the object into the center of our retina and doing what seems at first to be an absurd thing, that is looking away from the object, not directly at it, we suddenly become aware that we can now see what at first seemed not to be there! By analogy, directing our attention toward "I" is counter to our habit of focusing our attention on phenomena and we need to learn to avert our attention in a "direction" with which we have no experience.

    Another example, which at first glance may seem like nonsense (and it should if used properly!), is the following story, which is one of many, used in the methods of Zen Buddhism. One definition of Zen is; "Seeing into the nature of one's own being.":

A monk said to Joshu, "I have just entered this monastery. Please teach me."
"Have you eaten your rice porridge?" asked Joshu.
"Yes, I have," replied the monk.
"Then you had better wash your bowl," said Joshu.
With this the monk gained insight.

    This story, which runs along side the Zen path, and many others of a similar flavour were written down and commented on by various Zen masters. There is no "correct" interpretation of these stories just as there is no "correct" explanation of such Zen Koans as; "What was your face before you were born?" Here is an interpretation, which occurred to me during a Satori (or an instance of Self-Remembering to use another term for what I think of as the same experience):

    The monk or student has been studying the writings of Buddhism, or perhaps meditating on a Koan given him by another master, with much effort, like XXXXXXXX's [Note] students having put in effort to understand Spinoza's writings. The master, Joshu, is aware of this effort and can see that the monk is earnestly seeking to understand. However, the master is also aware that the monk has his whole attention focused on the phenomena rippling around on his own body and that in this sense he is looking in the "wrong direction" for Understanding.

    When Joshu asks the monk if he has eaten his rice porridge, what does the monk think of the question? It may be that he does not think about it at all but merely answers mechanically. Or, it may be that he imagines that Joshu is "telling him" by this question that he should first attend to the needs of his body and that later he can work on the mind. In any case, he answers the question about whether or not he has eaten. Joshu immediately continues this same line of thought (which the monk imagines has nothing to do with the master instructing him in Zen) by saying that he had better wash his bowl!

    What in the "world" has this to do with the monk immediately, without deliberation, gaining insight into his nature? I believe that the monk suddenly became aware of the "one sided" focus of his attention directed at what he thought was the "Zen teaching" and by this fact of splitting his attention experienced a moment of "Self-Remembering" which is to say that he looked the "other way" at that moment, "into the nature of his own being." This, to me, is XXXXXXXXXXX's XXXXXXXXXXXX [Note] and it is something unmistakable, I do not ask myself when it occurs; "Do I understand this idea?" --My consciousness IS the Understanding of the Idea. These moments do not last (from the viewpoint of the senses where time and place have their root) but they become like rungs on a ladder, which reaches Infinitely in a direction toward the Eternal One which our senses cannot see.

    In these moments, I do not think of Spinoza, or XXXXXXXXX, or Jesus Christ, or any other seemingly separate being. There is only One Being and that Being Knows Truly only Itself.

    In the humble recognition that this offering to you most probably falls far short of fulfilling your request for an example and process which I might follow in my studies, I will close...


I welcome any thoughts on the above subject.
You may send email to:
tneff [at] earthlink [dot] net

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