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Our ordinary mind is the way Barry Magid October 29th 2022

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Last week, as you know, I was up at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies leading a weekend workshop. It’s the sort of thing that I’m usually reluctant to do. I’m never quite sure how valuable it is to give a series of talks to a group of people with very different backgrounds and practice and who don’t necessarily know my work or where I’m coming from. I don’t know who they are or where they’re coming from. I suppose having worked all these years as a psychotherapist, I see how uncertain and slow and incremental change can be, even when you see somebody every week for years on end, and so it’s a big question mark about what you’re doing when you go talk to a group of strangers like that for a weekend.

But it’s also the case that a single encounter can make a big impact on a person, something that you can set in motion. People do get inspired, see things suddenly from a different way. You never know what’s going to make a difference in someone’s life. So once a year I’ve been letting myself get talked into it. Many years back, Joko was persuaded to come lead a sesshin in New York only because we shamelessly bribed her with tickets to the U.S. Open in Forest Hills. In that spirit, each year my co-leader Max Erdstein shamelessly bribes me with a wonderful sushi dinner, in a way to persuade me to give these workshops. So as long as the bribes keep coming, I guess I’ll do it for another year.

I thought I would just briefly recapitulate some of the themes from that workshop and try to tie it in to what we’re reading this week in Garfield, because in a certain way, the ongoing theme that we’ve been exploring is the way that our practice gets shaped and often misshaped by the metaphors that we use in practice and sometimes in a kind of automatic or unthinking way we get caught up by a certain picture of what we think we’re doing or what we think is supposed to be happening.

Up at Barre I was using the work of two philosophers, one was Wilfrid Sellars and the other Victor Hori, to take a look at what’s often a very common trope in Zen Buddhism, which is the idea that our practice is going to allow us to see reality directly, and it will do that by allowing us to drop the conceptual filters that supposedly stand between us and pure perception.

Sellars was looking at this idea from the perspective of a critique of empiricism. He knew nothing about Buddhism and was making this argument for a very different kind of reason, although it’s been picked up by Buddhists, not just by me. Jay Garfield has edited a whole book on Sellars and Buddhist philosophy, so the idea is not just totally idiosyncratically me. Sellars was addressing a kind of philosophy of science which imagined that we can start with something like the raw data of pure sensation, of raw fields, and that this can be conceptually free, and in that would be the foundation or building blocks on which scientific theory can be built. We could start with something like uncontaminated sense data. But Sellars’ basic argument is that if sense data was going to be truly concept-free, it would just be an inchoate mass of incomprehensible sensation, and that our actual ordinary experience is that we don’t just see – we see as, and that’s the basic distinction that he’s drawing all the time – the difference between seeing and seeing as. We see something as red. We know that it is a color, we know it is a color distinct from green, and we have all sorts of ways in which we begin to sort out whether we’re seeing it under the right conditions, and we can actually tell what the color is. He goes on with a lot of very specific detail which was, I admit, quite over the head of most people at the workshop but they had to indulge me.

One of the things he’s trying to emphasize is that life never comes at us in little discrete bits and pieces that we then assemble into wholes, into whole pictures, but rather, in his words, to know any one thing, you have to know a lot of other things, and that our perception is actually always organized or structured conceptually and linguistically, and it’s one of our curative fantasies that there’s such a thing as going beyond concepts and language into something immaculate and pure, uncontaminated. That itself is a kind of metaphor, an idealization.

The other thing we were looking at, by Victor Hori, came at this from a somewhat different direction, because he’s a philosopher who spent many years training in a Rinzai monastery. We were looking at an article of his called “Koan and Kensho in the Rinzai Curriculum,” and he talks about not just what Sellars was talking about, the impossibility of perception uncontaminated by concepts, but the further fantasy of pure consciousness and awareness that is stripped of all content, so that there is something like what he was calling pure consciousness, pure awareness, prior to sound and sight and smell and taste, that there’s a kind of pure mirror of consciousness before anything shows up in the mirror. And again, he says that people get captivated by this image, but it’s not at all how Zen works, or what kensho is about. Zen training is not about emptying the mind of consciousness or purifying it, but uniting it with activity, by being whole-hearted and not separate in the midst of all sorts of mundane activities, which for monks often involve work and cleaning and cooking and doing the dishes and all sorts of things like that.

The place where I want to tie this in with Garfield today is that I think that he’s looking at the concept of no-self, or considering self as an illusion, in a way that’s parallel to the idea of perception uncontaminated by concepts. He sets up this idea that what we ordinarily call the self is an illusion, and there’s going to be some kind of realization of no-self that is going to be a radical transformation of consciousness. The dilemma of no-self is something that in the Buddhist literature can get valorized in a way that it becomes equated with a mystical experience that we can spend years pursuing.

Garfield wants philosophically to entertain simultaneously the possibility of thinking about persons rather than selves as a kind of much more ordinary language way of getting away from the self as timeless and the lack of essence, to stop identifying the self with an immortal soul and things like that, but at the same time, it’s very hooked into the testimony of mystics, who are supposed to have penetrated this illusion into a whole other state of consciousness. I don’t want to go into whether there’s special states in which you might have some revelation of the emptiness of self, as all sorts of things like can happen in practice or be cultivated, but the bottom line is that they will never eliminate our basic minimal sense of self, which is the subject of this chapter.

There are basic ways in which the experience of self is something he finally comes around to say at the end of the chapter. Well, it just feels like we have selves. No matter how much you understand it or think it’s an illusion, or even if yesterday you had some big experience of the unity of all consciousness and no separate self, well, today you wake up, have breakfast, and make your oatmeal and you're back to operating with a self. And this is completely unavoidable because a fundamental sense of self is involved first of all with the experience of agency, just putting water in the pan, setting it to boil, measuring the oatmeal, putting it in the pot, and cooking it. In all these way you’re engaged in actions that you feel are instrumental, it feels I’m doing this, I’m picking it up, and I know when I pick it up it will will go from here to there, and will have this effect, and the whole sense of being able to have agency and having an effect in the world, is a big part of who I am. It’s what a self is.

We see that in these little ways, it’s just being able to feel and do, but it’s also what reconstitutes a self in the bigger picture of our life. I can sing, I can walk, I can play music, I can read a book. I can function in the world as a psychiatrist, I’m a parent, all these are activities in the world that I do, and they are relationships I have, but the sense of self does not precede these things. It precipitates out of them. My sense of who I am comes from doing. I am my abilities and capacities and actions and habits. That’s what my sense of myself is, and as long as I’m functioning in life, all these things precipitate out as an ongoing sense of self.

In this chapter you also get a much more basic sense of the self reflexivity of consciousness in that whenever I’m aware of something, I experience it as my experience. There’s a kind of way in which I’m having the experience, it’s not completely depersonalized or dissociated. I’m making the oatmeal for my breakfast, and when I eat the oatmeal, I’m tasting it. I realize the spoon is going into my mouth and I’m having the sensation of taste and temperature. There’s a basic blindness (mindless) that is intrinsic to having any kind of experience at all. This is what it is to be conscious and to be aware. Garfield, I think, sometimes acts as if to acknowledge the reflexivity of consciousness or the blindness of experience or the reality of agency somehow automatically turns you into a Cartesian philosopher positing the existence of a self behind the scenes doing all these things.

We don’t have to have a philosophical conception of a separate permanent inner essence in order to have these experiences of reflexivity and blindness and agency. They don’t just come with the territory. They ARE the territory. That IS the phenomenology of what consciousness is. As Wittgenstein tells us, we want to be careful not to be deceived by the grammar of our language when we talk about these experiences, and start positing to ourselves the kind of separate, immaterial, immortal soul which you can get in Des Carte or early Indian philosophy, but to dispel philosophical illusion is not the same as trying to dispel the phenomenology of what consciousness feels like. That we have to accept and live in the midst of.

I go on about this because I think that when we practice we can get all caught up and thinking that we are not there yet or doing it wrong, because we continue to have perfectly ordinary experiences of thoughts and feelings and my own sense of self as I practice, and part of us in the background is always imagining, Well, this can’t really be it, because it’s just too ordinary, and we’ve got working in the background these fantastic ideas of what no-self is supposed to feel like, or what it’s supposed to be to attain this, or what concept-free perception is supposed to be, or what pure consciousness is all about. All these things are part and parcel of the curative fantasies that keep us chasing something that is always on the receding horizon, and if I go on this philosophical stuff at such great length, it’s really to try to puncture the bubble of some of these fantasies, of what practice or enlightenment is supposed to be like, because i think that’s the only way that brings us back to our ordinary mind, which, in fact, is the way.

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