I have had two life-long preoccupations. Firstly, ever since I was a child, I wanted to know what people were talking about when they referred to ‘the mind.’ This preoccupation first manifested as a wish to know what was meant by the word ‘I.’ At age four, I asked my father “Who am I?” I didn’t want to know my name and place in the family; but his answer was: “What are you talking about? You’re Christopher. You’re your mother’s son.” Yet, my question was more essential than this.
I wanted to know what the nature of the knower was. I knew that I knew things, but I couldn’t see that knower, the one who was experiencing the ‘seens’ and ‘heards’ of the world. I remember later, at nine years old, staring at some stones and asking, “They’re there (those stones), so where is the one who is seeing them, the one I am in here?” I’d look back, inwardly, to see if I could discern ‘me’; but to no avail. In adult language, I can say that from age four onwards, I was occasionally beset by perceptions about (what a sophisticated person might call) ‘the inside/outside distinction.’
I didn’t get any help in that project from my parents, or from the other the adults in my childhood world. They, as it turned out, were as lost as I was – and it showed. Violence was a constant in my childhood. It was in my home, in the local streets, and even in the classrooms at school. The human world was a very unsafe place. By the time I left high school at seventeen, I entertained the possibility that violence went with being human. The Vietnam War – a war I refused to participate in – was raging at the time. And, as well, by the completion of my university education, I knew well of two other shocking battle-fronts: one maintained by men against women, and the other maintained by men (mostly men) against the natural environs – against the earth, plants, sky, and waters; and against the non-human creatures which inhabit these domains.
I was, of course, like everyone else, divided against myself. Regarding my own divided mind, while I was still at high school I began to take steps to find some peace. I learned a form of Eastern meditation, I encountered the philosophy of Plato and his mentor Socrates, and I also read some texts by the Christian mystic Master Eckhart. Daily meditation opened up a whole new domain of discovery, an ancestral domain. Hence, by the time I left university at twenty-three, I had started on a path of personal transformation which would resolve – for myself, at least – those two issues; that of self-knowledge, and that of the world-wide war on nature. It was clear to me that humans are lost in concepts, leading us to be insensitive to what holds us, the ever-present matrix of dynamic self-generating life.
As I proceeded through my twenties, it became evident that our war on nature – that is, against the Earth, against women, against each other, and, peculiarly, against ourselves – all this, had its roots in our lack of direct acquaintance with (what we call) ‘mind’ and its false separation from ‘body.’ In other words, the root of all conflict lies in our estrangement from our own nature. Back in those days, too, I remember reading Gregory Bateson’s teaching that the ‘mind’ is nature, and that it is a relational process.
As an aside, it struck me in my mid-twenties that I had been in my country’s education system for at least twenty years – from kindergarten, and on through university; and, in that time, not one of my educators had raised the issue of the meaning of the word ‘mind.’ Everyone used it in the most casual of conversations, yet no-one whom I met seriously questioned whether we knew its referent (except my fellow counter-cultural, consciousness trippers). I do know now, of course, that there were philosophers and psychologists who had long asked how we know the world, but I didn’t personally encounter them in all my years in the education system. That, I think, is an indication of the ignorance inherent in a Western education.
Eventually, I was able to have first-hand experience of the presence of mind – firstly through Buddhist meditation practice; and then later with the help of Western phenomenology. These two streams of inquiry enabled me, not only to feel that presence but, to further specify in modern terms what kind of accessible bodily process we refer to, when saying and thinking the word ‘mind.’ The result has been the felt inclusion of the non-conceptual dimension of ‘mind,’ a palpable embrace which helped me begin to transform the causes of conflict in myself. My ‘letters’ will explicate what I mean by ‘non-conceptual.’
The activist Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, said in Being Peace (Parallax Press): “Meditation is to see deeply into things, to see how we can change, how we can transform our situation. To transform our situation is also to transform our minds. To transform our minds is also to transform our situation, because the situation is mind, and mind is situation. Awakening is important. The nature of the bombs, the nature of injustice, the nature of the weapons, and the nature of our own being are the same. This is the real meaning of engaged Buddhism.”
‘Nature’ as the human and the ‘nature’ of everything else – it’s the same nature.
So, I am writing for those interested in contributing to the solution – the ending of conflict in humans. I meet regularly with people who are interested in healing the ‘inner’ roots of human conflict, the divided ‘mind.’ I’m not dismissing the ‘outer’ which you can study in politics, anthropology, sociology, psychology (which is mostly about brains, now), nor any other sciences. Neither am I saying that we can just meditate and all problems will be solved. Action to bring about change is important. However, without getting the ‘inner’ dimension right, we’ll only be angry, hateful forces; merely hoping that our scatter-gun can bring about change. As Dylan said, we’ll become our enemy in the instant that we speak.
sFundamentally, we need new models of the human which can stand alongside the dominant scientific concepts. Western society is still privileging models of human behaviour based on observations of the ‘outer,’ as though what’s going on ‘over there,’ at a distance, can tell us what is most essential about ourselves.
Science hasn’t yet formed a model for human knowing which includes the way we actually experience ourselves. Science has no place for what it’s like to feel like a human. Philosopher Thomas Nagel famously asked, ‘What’s it like to be a bat?’ I presume that what he was getting at is the perennial importance of asking: ‘What’s it like to be a human being – a human being?’ “What’s it like to be you – a unique human, being?” Science is delightful and useful, to be sure, but experiencing yourself is a wholly different matter. I don’t experience neuronal networks. I experience body, feelings, perceptions, intentionality, and consciousness. (Here, there are other words and models for how to say what we experience. But this will do for now. The point is, these I can be mindful of.)
I have had various trainings, both Eastern (Buddhism) and Western (psychotherapy and phenomenology). I have learned much about ‘this being human’ from four main sources: from my compassionate teachers; from exploring in mindful psychotherapy sessions with many non-Buddhist clients (as a therapist myself); from experiencing my own being-as-such; and, from teaching Buddhist practice. My ‘letters’ will, no doubt, reflect all that.
I wish to suggest a model of the human being which can help transform of our underlying tendencies to destructiveness. In sum, I could say that I will unpack Nhat Hanh’s statement: “To transform our minds is also to transform our situation, because the situation is mind, and mind is situation.” (My emphasis.)
In this model, where “Awakening is important,” I place ‘experiencing’ to the forefront. The question “What’s it like, really, to be a human?” matters in every situation on our little blue planet – the only world that we people and all the other species inhabit. Let’s talk about the state of Being-here, everywhere we can.
Next: The person who wishes to discover what is true, what is real – and what is truly beautiful – must have a different relationship to authority than the person who ignores his or her relationship to (‘what is’).