By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
As we continue to learn how to live within the borders of our vows taken during the precept ceremony we also focus on getting to know what is going on inside our psychophysical personality that sees clearly what is happening outside of it. For you see, being in the moment is both an inner and outer experience. It is both a physical and mental process. Meditation and contemplative thought begins with the development of a strong subconscious monitor, or witness to how we are in moments of awareness without us being aware of it. It is a critical element that promotes change when we are ready. Change is what our Buddhist practice is all about. It is the principle that underlies the Four Nobel Truths. I once heard it said that “You can’t move a plank you’re standing on”. How many of us are struggling with our practice and getting no where? As long as ordinary awareness is the only awareness you know, there is really no possibility of shifting the weight of your person from its ego-centered perch to its true center. In this ordinary awareness the best you can hope for is to wind up with a healthy ego, one that is in reasonable touch with its own boundaries and respectful of the boundaries of others. For many of us that is as good as it gets. At least, hopefully, it is an ego that has adopted the Three Pure Precepts: Do no harm, Do only good, Do good for others. But there is much more to life when we learn to develop an encompassing and socially aware subconscious monitor moving it to the state of consciousness.
We were each born with the potential to realize certain powers of supreme importance, and our process of becoming how we are is a process of learning to nurture, develop, and utilize those skills and powers of observation, it is how humans survived and flourished. We were born with the potential to be able to celebrate the gift of life, to act with caring for others, to have a passion for social justice and reality, to affirm life despite our inevitable suffering, the potential not only to labor, but to live, enjoy, love, to embrace existence itself and everything in it, including everything that was here before we were born and that will be here after we are gone. Everyday we are diverted and absorbed in the busyness of living. We often miss an opportunity to look, to listen, and to wonder at the uniqueness that is about us and within us. Part of the gift of human consciousness is our potential for awareness of our separation from the world driven by the ego’s seeing itself as separate and eternal. Our Buddhist studies restores ourselves from this state of separation by facing directly what it means to be an expression of the Universe.
What makes the ego behave in such a restrictive manner is its incapacity to separate from itself. It has a tendency to get completely lost in its inner psychodramas. In many ways an uncontrolled ego is like sleep walking, or going through life on automatic – watching life go by like driving a car while looking out the rear window. And we can all imagine how well that would work out. That might account for why some people’s lives are like a car wreck. If we want to know what kind of ego it is to which we are personally attached, we only need to ask ourselves what it is that makes us feel defensive. What comment cuts us to the quick? What criticism of us rouses our anger? Each of us has our own list, and that is the list of our ego attachments.
You hear me often speak of the importance of learning to stay in the moment by cultivating awareness. Meditation is the tool we use to begin to develop an subconscious monitor which is a primary objective of a dedicated meditation practice. This can be achieved even when we sit zazen with a clear mind. Our contemplative practice is different in that we actively work with thoughts that arise at will giving our subconscious monitor free reign to dive deeper into the spiritual self. So our meditation and contemplative practice work together, one cultivating the subconscious monitor, and the other using it off the cushion. This process is important for a monastic or lay practitioner on the path by working diligently outside of our “cushion time” to develop a conscious witnessing presence. This is a process that moves our practice from an elementary one, to one that merges the practical and the spiritual toward ever deeper experiences as we engage the dharma.
It is a challenge to learn to work with our subconscious monitor. It is not easy and involves a period of acute self-awareness and rigorous self-honesty. Our complete identification with our ordinary awareness is so automatic that learning to step back from it, to be more deeply aware of how the Universe expresses itself in every moment can almost feel unnatural at first, or even more distracting, that can result in false notions of spiritual grandeur. But we are give an opportunity to experience directly an expanded field of consciousness; not just the boat floating down the river, but the river itself. Out of this simultaneous awareness, a whole new sense of “how we are” emerges. We are no longer identified with each passing impulse or emotional reaction, but deeply planted in our own expression of the Universe. The subconscious monitor carries this new sense of how we are and is thus the bridge between the ego-centered awareness and our deeper reality.
It is easy to get our meditation practice confused with our contemplative one. So I would like to offer some basic guidelines about working with an subconscious monitor to help you along your way on this spiritual journey of yours.
We can not begin without first asking exactly what is meant by the term subconscious monitor. It is not the inner voice of your ego, nor does it have anything to do with a personal self. It is not the voice of judgment or one of trying to correct something either. It is not self-awareness in any usual sense. Rather, it is our human person being aware in a way that we shift our attention away from our ego-centric orbit to a deeper place, which essentially assumes the role of watcher THROUGH our own body-mind interaction with the world around us. It takes on the role of processing human perspectives clear of distortion, or influenced by personal preferences. It is non-judgmental. It is where our rational thought process resides.
The distinctive feature of the subconscious monitor is that it does not identify itself. It can watch what is going on without grabbing on to the contents or claiming the process for itself like the ego would. In ordinary psychological terms, to be self-aware means to be able to say “I am feeling sad right now.” Where the speaker is identified with their personal feelings at the moment. It is often what we do in meditation. But the subconscious monitor would observe “there are feelings of sadness.” The difference here is that there is no personal identification with feelings of sadness, only awareness of the reality which is far deeper and more stable than the passing experience of moods, feelings, or agendas. In our spiritual practice we can learn to observe this double-awareness giving us the capacity to be simultaneously present in the moment without prejudice to both the content of our thoughts and the experience itself. In our meditation practice we are taught “Whenever a thought comes up, let it go.” When our meditation practice advances we begin to discover that we in fact do have the capacity to separate from our thoughts. When a thought comes up, we can just think “no”. Obviously we are not just our thoughts, but the subconscious monitor emerges from a much deeper and steadier place at the center of our person that acts to objectify our thought process. Working with an subconscious monitor simply extends this core insight into daily life. It allows us to seek relationships with our experiences, that in turn, expands our capacity to inter-connect with the greater world around us. We learn the lesson that “it is not about us”, something the ego has trouble with.
The real answer to this question of what is this subconscious monitor, is found in the word “where.” In some traditional spiritual practices the subconscious monitor is thought to be just another extension of the process-mind function. In once sense, it is the conscious mind being conscious of itself. That is only part of the answer. We can not really observe the subconscious monitor as we can learn to experience the working of our ego. We can, however, become aware of it’s active presence by being aware of the rational intent behind our actions. It has nothing to do with mysticism, which will plunge us into a surrealistic hall of mirrors. It is more than internal generated thoughts. It requires our entire body-mind acting in coordination with external forces to surface into our conscious moment. It is more sensed than seen. One way to consider it, is that our subconscious monitor comes form the center of our human-beingness. We do not “do” anything to activate this observer, we merely stay in the moment in states of clear awareness, which becomes the platform for witnessing the present. This is the causal process associated in our aware-practice that we work so hard to develop in our meditation sessions, effecting our state of body-mind that, in turn, allows our mind to be entirely free to be present to whatever is at hand. It is a much more visceral way of being in touch with that deeper act of seeking within us. It is not so much a matter of our activating it as it becomes a natural element of how we are. Once you have gotten some experience with this way of working with your spiritual side of practice, this whole business of doubled awareness proceeds far more naturally. The sad truth is that for many, their inner rational self is dormant.
The Buddha identified a specific way of considering what he called “spiritual power”. You find his teaching on the role the spiritual plays in our practice in the Cetokhila Sutta “The Wilderness in the Heart” verse 26 in the Majjhima Nikaya. Also in the Samyutta Nikaya number 51 referred to as the Connected Discourses on the Bases for Spiritual Power. In doing so he names four elements to a spiritual state, that when developed and cultivated would lead to “going beyond from the near shore to the far shore” as the sutta puts it. These four elements are zeal, energy, purity of mind, and investigation. He also added the critical driver of enthusiasm to bring the four together into action. So Siddhartha saw the spiritual in terms of action, or doing. He said the process is capable of breaking out, capable of enlightenment, capable of attaining the supreme security from bondage. Our subconscious monitor is activated by this spiritual energy, and acts as the catalyst to awaken in us the zeal to seek the wonder of this world, the energy to work through our thought processes, the ability to develop a clear mind, and the enthusiasm to investigate the ever expanding awareness of our body-mind that opens the door to understanding and wisdom. We only need to be open to its voice.
So, how can we use the subconscious monitor as a tool for human flourishing? It is not a way of bailing out of our small self into our larger self as you sometimes read in contemporary self-help books. Rather, its purpose is to bring our ego-centered awareness and our expanded capacity for observing the still-point in each moment into meaningful alignment without prejudice. This is in itself an important point to consider from our usual notion of what spiritual awakening is all about. It is commonly thought that the goal is to override or destroy our ego-centered mind and replace it with a higher developed being. But this is really not what is intended. When we combine our refined-ego and our deeper aware-self with its heightened sense of our Universal purpose, we come together with true individuality. Separate but equally connected with all other expressions of the Universe. Form and emptiness indistinguishable. This process of witnessing the moment allows us to see the whole picture and be the whole picture. In this way we can find the spiritual in our better moments, using the deeper aware self to suppress our ego-mind limitations. In other words, it allows for transcended moments of experiencing the Universe in real terms. We set myths and expectations aside in order to just be open to the experience just as it is. When we contemplate the vast array of stars, separated from us by distances and time beyond the understanding of our ordinary thought, we can’t help but feel ourselves to be insignificant specks in an incomprehensible universe. As we learn more and more of the world within even a single cell, each molecule and atom, we are humbled by the complexity and the structures beyond the range in which we live our daily lives. Consider the reflection of the moon on a still pond goes beyond the ordinary, to the extraordinary for a ripe mind. It is like the old Zen expression teaches, “The barn’s burned down, now I can see the moon.” Its purpose is to bring you into a state of unconditional presence, so that you not only believe but know that no physical or emotional state of body-mind has the power to knock you out of being in the moment. And in that moment, we our given an opportunity to experience reality beyond words to express. Developing our subconscious monitor, prepares us for these experiences when they come. It is at these moments that the subconscious monitor steps aside and lets the spiritual power of our practice engage these awakening moments.
The important thing to keep reminding yourself about the subconscious monitor is that it is not judgmental. It is the experimenter and seeker within. It asks questions, but refrains from giving answers. If, for example, you habitually head to the front of very line, one day you might suddenly find yourself asking, “I wonder what would happen if I intentionally went to the rear?” Or if a person has just pushed your buttons and your blood is boiling (hello ego again) it may suddenly occur to you, “What would happen if I did not react in the usual way?” “What if?” is the observer’s home turf. It likes to stir up the waters of consciousness, win more and more of you away from conditioned reactions and the usual self-justifications into the adventure of expanding opportunities. As our spiritual nature becomes pushed more forward into our conscious, and our subconscious monitor begins to expand our awareness outwards, we will begin to awaken to the support and enhancing characteristics a spiritual practice adds to our Buddhist studies and meditation practice. All three elements offers a balanced platform upon which to establish an engaged practice that supports our ability to keep living our vow. The key to a successful monastic life.