Zen and non-Zen

A strange fact about the human condition is that each of us is always watching our own internal movie. Whether that is a vivid, ultra-detailed film, or a misty, shadowy one with chattery commotion going on vaguely in the background, that film is all there is to our experience, no matter where we go or what we do.

Most Zen writings teach the alluring principle that we are all asleep even when we are awake. The random flow of our own thoughts keeps us asleep by distracting our minds from pure awareness. Zen practice includes techniques for awakening ("Buddha" means awakened) from that thought-induced slumber.

Those techniques are often taken as a way of entering a kind of hyper-conscious state, where sensations that would ordinarily be ignored get noticed. I would suggest that although that state of active awareness can be an interesting and enriching experience, it isn't really awakening in the profoundly existential sense that the Buddhists probably originally meant.

new leaves

To use a simple metaphor, our consciousness is like the pointer arrow on the computer monitor. We can move the pointer around on the screen, but we cannot escape it, no matter what we do -- not even in our dreams! No matter which Zen technique you practice, you'll always be perfectly connected to that roving dot of awareness that continuously scans your surroundings as well as your inner psychological furnishings.

Sometimes in your Zen practice you may believe that you and your surroundings are not distinct from one another, that you are simply watching without affecting or being affected, without naming or classifying any object, or distinguishing any object from its surroundings, that you have lost your sense of subjectivity, that subject and object are one.

Despite all that, you will still only be the roving dot. You are activity happening in a brain. That brain cannot be simultaneously aware of everything that exists in the universe, or even of everything that exists in itself or its immediate surroundings.

We may ask what it is like to be a brain. The answer is that it is no different from being a rock. The brain simply is.

You are the brain's transient center of focus, its way of restricting attention to a manageable area. Even emotions and what we call "will" are all "watchable" elements in the mind that take place without the self actually controlling them. Scientific experiments have shown that your brain decides what you will do before "you" are even aware of the decision.

The brain conjures its own illusion of a self that is watching the movie, but all the self ever does or ever can do is watch that movie. The self (the "I") is just the attention-focusing activity in the brain, not the brain itself, while the brain is a blob of nerve tissue and is as much a part of the material universe as is a chunk of granite.

We already understand that fact implicitly when we refer to a brain as "it" rather than "he" or "she". And yet, each of us feels that we are truly more substantial than just a bit of activity in the brain while it focuses its attention. We feel an inexpressibly profound conviction that not only are we real, we are in fact more real than everything else.

You feel that the world itself could possibly be an illusion, but that you, the Viewer of the Movie, must be utterly real and inextinguishable ("I think, therefore I am"). No wonder many people find themselves believing in an indestructible soul.

The self, created by the brain, is what turns events in the brain into experience. Like any other part of the physical world, the brain simply exists. Pain and pleasure take place in the brain, but the brain does not experience them. It does not experience anything. The brain hears, without hearing what it hears, sees without seeing what it sees. The self, on the other hand, is what the brain has created to weave perceptions together to form experience.

Just like an elaborate dream that is woven in response to the sound of water dripping from a rooftop, or in response to food eaten before bed gurgling in the bowels, the self weaves a web of experience around the sense data flowing into the brain.

We may ask what it is like to be a brain. The answer is that it is no different from being a rock. The brain simply is. Meanwhile, the self is that which experiences what it is like to have an embodied brain. The self is that which is convinced of its own experience. The self simply experiences. It can do nothing else but evaluate all that happens in terms of experience.

Although the brain has no experience, the brain is all that is real. The self feels that it is in command, but that is only its illusion. The self is only a figment or side effect of the brain's activity. The self is something the brain does.

The weird tautology of the self is that it is convinced of its own substantiality because the self is precisely that device in the brain that experiences, and the subject that experiences also experiences itself as substantial. What is it like to be a videogame character?

Could the brain ever realize that it is much greater than the movie watcher? That it has itself created the movie watcher? That it is not just the conscious self, but that it is the existence of the world as a whole, with which it is seamlessly interconnected? Paradoxically, that would be a realization that could not be experienced by the self, although it would be an awakening of some sort.

The self, on the other hand, can discover itself to be a shadow of the silent, unperceiving brain beneath. It can discover the brain as that which sees without seeing, hears without hearing, understands without knowing, decides without intention. Whether that awakening would be Zen or non-Zen is another question.

Michael Webb, 2004

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