“The brain speaks through words; the heart in the glance of the eyes; and the soul through a radiance that charges the atmosphere, magnetizing all.” – Hazrat Inayat Khan (founder of The Sufi Order in the West in 1914)
Sometimes, as a way to cut through all intellectualization, I say: “At its most basic, I teach the meditation of expansion and contraction of personal consciousness energy.” I then go on to point out to those I am addressing that I know that they have experienced what I am speaking about innumerable times in their life, but because our culture doesn’t validate the experience of consciousness as energy, it goes unnoticed. The greatest unasked questions in Western culture concern consciousness: What is it, what is its source and what are the implications of its differing states of amplitude, direction and focus? This oversight has vast implications in our understanding of psychology and spirituality.
We have all had the experience when in an overwhelmingly beautiful natural setting – like a mountain-top, a powerful waterfall or a dramatic ocean sunset – to be so entranced by the grandeur that we forget ourselves completely. We, in Zen terms, become nobody – that is, we are not experiencing the moment as this separate person looking at something outside ourselves – we become the experience. We forget about ourselves. We are the mountain or ocean vista happening in awareness. The energy of consciousness has ceased to be concentrated around the idea of ourself as a separate person, it expands and is redirected outward into the experience – any sense of self has diminished markedly into being simply the witness. The result is dramatic in producing a sense of well-being, fullness and completeness. Only a very neurotic person (a way of describing unceasing self-absorption) would critique the moment or fail to open completely into it.
Anyone who has participated in some athletic activity with any advanced level of skill has had the experience of “being in the zone,” as the experience of perfect concentration and coordination of body and action become one seamless activity. The athlete’s consciousness energy expands to hold self, action and field in a seamless field of awareness in which the patterns of energy of the athlete, the medium of the activity and the other participants in the activity are all connected and happening within a seamless consciousness. Likewise, when first learning an athletic skill, or on days when the “zone” eludes us, we know how it feels to not be able to put concentration, body coordination and action together. We are very self-conscious of our efforts and very self-conscious of our frustration at our inability to find that “zone.” Instead of an expansive experience of perfect integration, the moment becomes contracted into consciousness centered on the frustrated efforts of “me” in fragmented relationship to the activity and the field of activity.
Anyone who has developed any proficiency with an artistic medium like music, painting, sculpting, acting or dancing knows the experience of complete absorption where all self-consciousness dissolves into perfect concentration in the creative process. We, in a sense, are the art rather than doing the art. The same is true with utilitarian skills like carpentry, mechanics, sewing or knitting. A student, entranced with their subject of study likewise knows the experience. There are moments when time stops and the sense that “I” am doing this activity falls away and there is an expansive experience of just this activity in awareness. Other times can be marked by this strong sense of “me” doing this thing and not doing it with the desired proficiency or outcome. We become frustrated, impatient, and unhappy with ourselves and the results of our actions. The felt-sense is of awkward contractedness.
Most importantly, we have all experienced deeply intimate moments of interaction with another person when the space between ourselves and the person becomes alive with energy and we feel completely connected. We have hardly any sense of ourself as separate from the person. The moment is you-and-me, and the energy of consciousness is alive and connecting. We have also, of course, experienced interactions when there is no identification or intimacy, or the intimacy has been broken because of some insult or injury to our ego, and the space between then serves to separate us. Here is a perfect example of an experience we may have daily yet we pay no attention to what is happening or why.
Finally, there are times when, perhaps in a religious setting or ritual, in prayer or meditation, in nature, or somehow in a quiet moment in our ordinary lives we feel what can only be called a spiritual connection. The sense of separate self falls away completely into an expansive sense of connection with the infinite.
All of these examples of positive connectedness represent what psychologist Abraham Maslow described as “peak experiences,” moments of happiness, well-being, maximum skillfulness, even transcendence and spirituality. Such moments happen repeatedly in the life of any person who is not so poisoned by self-absorption that such happiness is completely alien to them. Yet – we pay no attention to what is happening in the experience of the self-as-consciousness energy field that is associated with this spectrum of subjective experience.
Buddhism makes the very clear point that the difference has to do with self-absorption, with being caught in the delusion of self as a solid and separate entity from all that is not self, with the experience of me-in-here experiencing everything and everyone else in life as out there. The more a person’s experience orients around this self-in-here the more they experience a deadness, an unsatisfactoriness to life. There is an extreme contracted felt-sense of the energy of consciousness moving back into the separate body-mind experience. In the opposite direction, the more a person has no thought of self, but rather is focused into that which is occurring in awareness – the mountain or ocean vista, the tennis game, the knitting, the person with whom they are sharing the moment, the infinite, the simple everyday experiences of life, the more complete, alive, satisfied and even spiritual they feel as the sense of self in the energy of consciousness expands to include all that is being experienced.
This brings me back to my original idea – the meditation of expansion and contraction of personal consciousness energy. Every day, constantly, there is an ongoing unnoticed fluctuation and alteration in the experience of personal consciousness energy space happening at very subtle levels. That this declaration may sound like new-age blather to a Western reader is indicative of a cultural blindness. To a Native American, or to a mystic of any culture, such as Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Muslim Sufi from India, the notion of consciousness energy having many different qualities and dimensions serving to connect us into the world, into the universe, into the infinite some would call God, seems quite obvious.
My purpose is to point to various experiences that we have all known, and to call us to pay attention to that which has never been pointed to before. We can note that there is, when we are caught in the strong sense of our personal separateness, in self-consciousness, a strong contracted sense of the energy of awareness drawn back into this body and mind we associate with “me,” while when in experiences of great connectedness, in-the-zone, or “flow,” there is little to no self-consciousness and a very spacious and expansive subjective sense of self-in-the-moment – or more accurately, self-as-the-moment. The sense of self as a field of consciousness energy is either contracted into self-consciousness and awkward separateness or expanded into un-self-consciousness and connectedness with the environment, activity, person, or even the infinite. We can, as Hazrat Inayat Khan does, identify this with a spiritual energy and our spiritual source or “soul.” It can also, as in Zen, simply be identified as one’s true self that is awareness in which this body and mind and all we are experiencing co-arise in/as the moment in awareness.
Pay attention to the moment in awareness and where boundaries are created that do not actually exist except in the mind. Experiment. Look at a tree, a cloud, a squirrel, your dog or cat, another person and deliberately see separateness. Feel in the silent mind of intuitive understanding the separateness and notice the felt-sense that accompanies this isolation. Then, look again, only now deliberately expand the sense of self into the energy of awareness and connect. Feel how the space between you and the object of your gaze becomes alive where before it felt dead, empty. See if there is not “a radiance that charges the atmosphere, magnetizing all” when you forget yourself in the realization that you are truly this moment in awareness where all within the field of awareness are connected in the energy of consciousness. Literally, open yourself as a field of consciousness energy to embrace the world. This is the heart of all true spiritual practice and the secret to a happy and psychologically stable life.
Begin to pay attention on a moment-to-moment basis as to how various experiences, even thoughts, and certainly emotions, cause us to contract into a small reactive self or expand into a skillful, even loving, wise and kind, expansive self. We can, through meditation and mindfulness, begin to understand and master this phenomenon of self-as-field-of-consciousness-energy opening and awakening into realms of unimagined well-being. We can also become a finely tuned monitor of the felt-sense of contraction into neurotic conditioned separate-self-consciousness as it occurs and through breath awareness and reaching outward with our senses and consciousness-energy realize ourself as the expansive, clear, calm and magnetic consciousness energy that Zen describes as No-self.