May 23, 2002

Despite everything, our own subjective perspective is the primary, fundamental, and ultimate perspective that we all have in life; humans are neither scientific instruments nor computers; we live in a swirling fog of emotion and of fleetingly-glimpsed, often shifting, badly represented, and misunderstood realities. The subjective perspective is chaotic, incomprehensible, mysterious, and not infrequently distressing. The scientist's response to this is rejection: "Subjective" means "dismissable"; let's not think about anything that's not solid, reliable, objective, real. This follows from long experience showing how very intersubjectively incommunicable is so much of inner experience. One person's wise poetry is another's irrational gobbledygook.

This essay, and I, do not share this response.

My own reaction to distress is thoughtful introspection, by which I hope to grasp the solid realities of my subjective perspective, to find stable inner truths that I can rely on and use to defeat distress. Some would say that spinning the inner wheels is just that. But I would say that there is more to it than spinning wheels.

In defense of introspection


Thoughtful introspection is key. At the beginning, through the middle, and in the end of life you are left there with yourself. The contents of your own mind and experience are all you have, and the external world and society are meaningless unless you give them meaning within your own mind and experience (which is not to say that this is easily avoided). Therefore your own internal life is the most important thing in your life. And without thoughtful introspection, how can you learn to consciously manage your internal life?

Civilization's motto is Socrates': Know Thyself. By studying yourself you can hope to gain knowledge, peace, wisdom, and freedom (eventually). You will have yourself to experience, keep company with, respect, and love, and knowing that, and doing that by habit (if not by disposition or temperament) is itself knowledge, peace, wisdom, and freedom.

Introspection is much maligned by serious, thoughtful people: scientists, behaviorists, skeptics. I speak to them and to you. It is not unreasonable: Every day if you look inside you will see something different. Anger gives way to sadness, joy to peace. Confusion and understanding take turns. What is constant? What can be studied and truly understood? What can be said that is true, that will be true tomorrow, that holds as well for you as it does for me? Concern for truth, constancy, and communicability are hallmarks of science and acceptable educated conversation, and introspection would appear to have little of these. Indeed those goals are mine, otherwise I wouldn't write this for you.

But the purpose of introspection is the better management of one's own internal life. Few truly don't care about this, and those that do are free to wander away. This defense cannot be rejected; our purpose is valid. So, you and I talk about shared goals. We start where we are, and we learn what we can. And if a little of what we discover and try to say is true, constant, and even communicable, then a sweet surprise that may be, on our independent path to self-knowledge.


A theory of mind and emptiness

What am I, then? (What are you?) At first I'd say that I am my own mind: my own experience of the things that I do, see, feel, think, and say. There exist logical and scientific descriptions of action, vision, emotion, cognition, language, but beyond the externally described content of those realms of human psychology, I ask, What is their internal nature, which we actually experience subjectively? What is this subjective world, this mind in which I seem to reside?

Consider, hypothetically, one definition that might work:

What can the mind experience?

Some things we can experience: sensation and things derived from sensation such as perceptions and inferences about objects and events, aspects of language (like sound or meaning), rich mental constructs for social relations, movement, aspects of emotions (intensity, attraction/avoidance, social meaning, emotion-derived plans of action), thought in linguistic and other forms.

Other things we don't experience, though with training perhaps we could learn to: habituated sensation, things that are not at the center of attention, other aspects of language (like syntax), alien or unnoticed social relationships, movement on scales of time and space a few orders of magnitude away from our body size and attention span, perhaps other aspects of emotions (their nature as composite experiences, for example, or the processes of inference that brought them into experience), and finally, thought without form (if there is such a thing!).

The thinking, creative part of us is unattached, fast-moving. It does what understanding we are capable of. Even the sense of weight, dullness, and attachment is vivified by this. This thing also, it seems, cannot be sensed directly. This part of us seems not to be the mind as defined here, but might be understood as that which is behind the mind, which leaves our active experiences of things behind in its experience-creating wake.

One should always try to find the proper level of generality to describe the workings of a phenomenon. So in thinking about my mind, I wonder if there isn't some maximum point of abstract generalization about the mind. Generalizing means removing all the particulars, so to do that in thinking of the mind, means to consider the mind without any particular content in it. Take all the content out, and what do you have?

Is there a positive internal representation of nothingness? Is there some background representation that remains when the media content is removed from the media player, so to speak?

From the definition above, the answer is No, because it implies that the mind cannot experience or understand emptiness, or any featureless purity. If the word "mind" refers to the consciously accessible experience of things, then if there is nothing being experienced, then the mind is itself erased and gone.

Consider, is there is a way from the mind to the emptiness beyond the experienced shell of consciousness. Attempting to experience it a) fails when trying to experience something (though the attempt is understandable even in failure: that's the nature of what the mind does!); or b) empties the mind (and turns out to have washed simplicity and peace through one's experience).

Bear with me a moment, ye atheists. (Indeed I too am an atheist: There is NO deliveryman in the sky responding to or capriciously ignoring our nightly bended-knee shopping lists; there is NO entity in this real universe referred to by the name God. Moses did NOT have tape-recordable words spoken to him in Hebrew by an entity of some or any kind in that burning bush on the mountain from which he came down with his Commandments. There is no doubt about this and no reason to doubt it.) What is "God"? Consider it as a linguistic unit: three letters, three phonemes, one syllable, morpheme, and word; syntactically it can either be a common noun or a proper noun; semantically it seems obscure. But what is the meaning of this morpheme? Suppose that the word refers to that emptiness of mind, or equivalently to anything intrinsically beyond our experience, and that the word also connotes love and goodness. Experiencing the word (that is, the event where the mind understands the meaning of the word) sets up the relationship between this mind and that something else (which is not necessarily anything at all) and constructs in the mind a representation of something beyond and apart (as by the nature of the mind the emptiness really is) and perhaps good and perhaps loveable.

For a mind to merge into emptiness, it may be easier to love that emptiness. And perhaps it may be useful to have a pointer towards that emptiness in the form of a word which refers to it.

It may be that thinking "God" is a way (not the only way, nor the best), when you relate to that emptiness, experience it, and become it, to enter it, to empty the mind, to in the end wash simplicity and peace and purity through one's experience.


On feeling empty, growing up

Is detachment desireable, as Buddhists, Hindus, and camp followers say?

Only a tyrant could say, "Don't go with your feelings!" What else do we have in life?

But detachment is different things at different ages in life. Early on, feelings are strong, and detachment is either escape or horrible death. Later, for me, detachment becomes letting go of stuff I don't really want anyway, emotions that I'm partly caught up in, partly confused by, and partly unable and unwanting to really follow through with.

Noone told me how things would change. Listen: Your experience of life will change. Perception of smooth continuous movement will become sparse, frame-to-frame jittery. Clocks will tick faster. Feelings and intensity will fade. My neighbor asks, Did I notice that the sun does not shine as brightly?

If you learned to do a thing right, it'll become second nature, not instantaneous, but very fast, although you won't experience the details except from far away.

If you don't learn a thing well, you can always try again later, and usually, knowing more, you can do it better then. But it'll be harder to be swallowed up in the world of that task. And, if you don't come back to it, it'll be an incapacity, a lameness, an empty hole in the world of human possibility for you. So:

Nurture yourself, your innocence, your curiosity, and be as brave as you can when you are young, it will sustain you later.

On inspiration

Fall, 1995.

Remember! Where inspiration comes from. Don't think that sluggish tight-gripped experience you feel can tell you what to do. Don't let it: Realize it's that inspiration that runs the show, and surprisingly, that that is you.

Identify with your inspiration, not its products.

Be quick to move; be observant, in order to see where your inspiration has gone: go with it, now! Run quickly!

Knowledge (which is graspable) excludes inspiration. I can only follow inspiration around as it jumps from here to there by watching for its excretions: graspable experience. And by looking open-mindedly for new one(s), which are unpredictably different. That form of self, inspiration itself, is probably unknowable in Chomsky's sense: we don't have the mental apparatus to grasp it.



Why do I write these things? It's cheating, in a way, cheating myself from experiencing it more when I feel I have found an insight. At the point of understanding, to set to work writing about it takes me away from it. But it may be useful to me later when I don't understand to pick up again from this point (unlikely-- my experiences rarely repeat themselves and tomorrow I'm confused even more by how different it is and how I can't hold on to and rely on any one form of experience and of reaching for that emptiness). The main reason is I have an obsession to grasp, hold, write down, and share my understanding of the important things in life. It works out as wishing you well, in the end, which to me after all these years of forgetting and failing, but remaining internally obsessed, is a sweet surprise.


On Mantra
(Notes from a friend of some Hindus)

August 8, 1996

Return with me again to the questions, What am I? and, What am I to do with myself?

You are conscious, certainly. Let us start there. Consciousness has elements of self-awareness, as well as elements which take the form of other objects of awareness.

Consider the "Self" to be the point where consciousness rests. It is so named because of the element of self-awareness there; it is a goal of life because it is a place of rest.

Being pleasure seeking, and ridden by guilt and worry, consciousness rests more easily in a pleasureable virtue which is secure from worry (to the extent of its discipline). Rest and discipline don't conflict -- where the virtuous object of discipline is also pleasureable.

Consciousness has many forms, so varied and convincing one wonders if consciousness is unitary. In waking and falling to sleep, this unity, the similarity of the forms of consciousness, is more approachable than in the overpowering light of daytime activity. Vision, so reliable and unwilled. Emotion, coloring our world, definite when in society, amorphous and ever-changing when internally viewed. Hearing, so tied to our own sound-making system and to thought, category, and interpretation. Knowledge, false or true, formed in mysterious shapes like the objects of knowledge, and based in a conscious focus in that knowledge. All of these, at low intensities, are so variable, foolable, intangible, unrepeatable -- as at the boundaries of sleep, and in the gradual quiet of meditation.

One form of consciousness is in spoken language. Vocalized to others, one can also speak in one's mind a sentence, a phrase, a word, with or without vocalization. Simpler is easier, so let's say, a name. The experience of saying it is as much or more graspable and repeatable as any conscious experience we have. At will-generated intensities, the experience of saying the name can itself easily be seen as of the character of consciousness (as opposed to a more solid form such as perception of objects in bright light, whose character as consciousness may be more difficult to grasp).

Oh! variable, foolable experience, how can I grasp you!? How can I find a virtuous and pleasureable discipline to hold to, to rest in, to express my love through?! How can I find my Self?

Pick a name or word or phrase which represents what you love, what gives you peace, or virtue you admire. If it is 'God', or 'goodness', or 'Mom', or 'Ram', or 'Allah', or 'I love', or -- if you admire yourself -- your own name, or anything whatever, what matters is the love, peace, and goodness that YOU associate with it.

Say the Name, sitting quietly and comfortably, with spine straight to increase your self-awareness. The goal is to grasp something, repeatably and with discipline and pleasure, to see it as consciousness, to find a way to rest in it, ultimately to see it as Self. Say it with energy and enthusiasm, fill yourself with saying the Name of your love. Throw all you have into it, for as much as you give, you will receive back. The more you fill up yourself with the saying of it, the more will you overflow with the ultimate pleasure and goodness of your own Self.

As with exercise, you can do it longer and easier, or intensely and briefly, or both. But the greater the exercise, the greater the rest that comes from it, and the more you practice, the farther you can go.

But the rest is in it, not after it: in continuing the exercise through the point where the Name starts to become consciousness, to seem variable and insubstantial, but through discipline, love or pleasure, through the energy to repeat it in the midst of the melting away of it, until it and everything melts away, and all that remains is the disciplined, virtuous rest of featureless consciousness. Ultimately through practice and discipline, there you will see your Self, you will rest, self-aware, free.

On the Nature and Meaning of Life

April 22, 2002

English: Peace Life Self Void Please Grace
Hindu: Brahma Vishnu Shiva Krishna Om Guru
Muslim: Rabbil Aalameen Wa Aslamtu Mohammad
Buddhist: Samaadhi Samsaara (an)atman Sunya Om Mani
Christian: Heaven Jesus Yahweh Sin Holy Spirit

Life is, from the perspective of us, who experience it, nothing but the flow of experience that we go through; it is a symphony of sometimes-overlapping individual experiences.

Consider one experience at a time, analytically in reading this, or better yet in a time of quiet introspection when you can see it for yourself: Can a single experience, just one note in the symphony, be divided into parts?

Of course, we can divide time around an event into before, during and after, or the event itself into its edges and its middle: beginning, middle, and ending. Within conscious awareness the experience arises, is sustained, and subsides.

Although this three-fold division is evident and natural, the disappearance phase is actually complex and mysterious.

After the content of the experience, whatever it may be, fades from conscious awareness, there remains a sense of self-awareness, the simple knowledge of the inner witness that the witness is present. No actual content of sensation, feeling, or thought is there beyond one's own simple conscious self-awareness. Do you know this? Can you sit with yourself and recognize that you are there, watching what's going on? Of course you can! When self-consciously watching yourself go through some experience and it finally is done and gone, for a moment do you not have some awareness of yourself? Is there not some awareness of the stage on which your experiences play themselves out, of the center from which your mental perspective looks out into your world? I have this, most certainly, it's nothing special, it's basic, fundamental, it's what you get when you have a brain: self-awareness. For me the pure form of it is strongest, and unavoidable, during the down time just after some intense experience; I felt it most strongly as a high school athlete coming home after practice or after competitions, in a sense of completion, of satisfaction with myself, of knowing who I am. This awareness is the Self. It is you. You may wonder sometimes, What is your purpose in life? The answer is, your purpose in life is the purpose of your Self, the purpose of your Self is to recognize yourself, to abide in your self, to be what you are, to have this self-awareness. It's pretty simple, don't you think? It doesn't need to be complicated.

We are considering the sequence of phases within an experience; we so far have a picture in which it first arises, second sustains, and third subsides into the Self. What next? After the self-awareness phase there follows a settling-down time, a time of no experience, a time of the void. Our minds are nothing but activities of our nervous systems, and after nerves do their active work, they require a time of refraction, to rest and recharge themselves, to pump enough ions across their cell membranes so that they can be ready to actively discharge again, to do the work of carrying out our inner activities, of sensation, knowledge, action, etc. This fourth phase of experience is the phase of recharging. We may experience it as the void, as the loss of even self-awareness within a black and empty unconsciousness. But it is just a time of settling, a necessary time to collect ourselves, to rest, even if very briefly. Even if other parts of us are busy with other notes in the symphony, this part of us is recuperating and building up its strength in a quiet time, a time that with due respect and love everyone needs in every moment, since it is intrinsic and necessary to life. So this fourth phase is the Void.

There is a fifth phase. This is the good news of Hindu philosophy, that I travelled around the world to learn and to bring home to you, for which I spent seven years in Philadelphia getting a Ph.D. in cognitive science, in order to be able to put it into modern terms for you. After recharging and before starting up the next action, the nervous system is in a state of readiness, of fullness to overflowing, of power to create and form and enliven the experienced universe. It is not yet doing anything, in the sense that the networks of nerves have not yet begun discharging in patterns that we experience as (representations of) sensed objects or inferred thoughts or uttered words, but rather it is in a state of being prepared for whatever comes, a state of capability, a state of inner power, a state of freedom.

It is the state of Grace. It is not experienced as anything in particular. It is not something our eyes can see or our mind can represent (since seeing and representing are activities of nerve networks in our brains whose patterns constitute sensation and thought; and since this phase of Grace is not an activity but a readiness to act). The very fact that in the following moment we experience something new means that we must have been in this state. It is the natural condition of what we are.

The fifth phase of Grace is after and before every experience, but it is outside of what we are directly aware of. We can know that it is there, and we can see its consequences. But if it can be perceived, it is not our normal perception that can perceive it.

There is something better, something desireable, something lovely I want to share with you. To me, Grace is experienced as a feeling of freshness and inspiration in the heart. A surprising, undeserved flame burning in the center of myself, which when I come to an awareness of it, makes me feel wonder, amazement, gratitude, and sometimes an overwhelming feeling of too much love and light for my small and paltry mind to hold. This awareness is impossible to consciously re-create, impossible to hold onto with my mind, impossible to control, it is evanescent, mysterious, precious.

But there is a trick by which one can bring Grace under one's control. The trick is to go into the void with your whole heart and self feeling submission, humble devotion, heartfelt love. If I do that, then Grace happens. Of course Grace happens anyway but the point is to be aware of it. And that is the way. So before the word Grace, in my mantra of the five-fold action, I say "Om", if I am doing the Hindu version of it, or a heartfelt "Please" without attaching it to anything, just to have the right attitude of humble submission and loving devotion, which happens to bring about the awareness of Grace in the next moment.

So the five phases of an experience are Arising, Sustaining, Self, Void, and (with an attitude of humble devotion we can experience) Grace.

I don't know about you, but I want to memorize, study and learn these phases, and master the skill of being aware of their continual cyclical flow. Most of all I want to experience Grace in my heart. But also for the peace of mind offered by seeing that all these aspects of experience are safe, normal, not scary, healthy, natural, important parts of my own creation of my own experience, I want to learn to recognize them quickly, to be able keep them in my mind as I go through life so that I can begin to see what is happening as what it really is, directly and immediately, just as one sees a red thing and knows that it is red. For example, if I feel that settling inward feeling of the Void I might otherwise get confused and worried that I'm not engaged with life, or if I feel that something is causing me pain, I can see it as part of Life, no more or less than anything else, that will subside just as it arose, so that the pain is less distressing. This is the balanced view I desire to have, seeing things as they are in real time, as the score of my life's symphony plays itself out. I believe that if I can do that then I will be able to have a new, different, more insightful, happier, better relationship to my experience and my life.

So how does one develop a straightforward skill like that? It's not much different from learning any skill, it's just a matter of memorization and application. So I have memorized a mantra comprising names of the five phases, plus something that reminds me about humble devotion, if I want to actually feel the Grace that is there. I have used both English and Hindu versions of it with equal and excellent effect.

In English I have called them Peace, Life, Self, Void, and (Please) Grace. Peace because a new experience arises out of peace, or you might say, out of its own absolute nonexistence. Life because the sustaining of experience is what we experience as the actual content of life itself, whether it is good, bad, or indifferent. Self, obviously, that's the self-awareness phase. Void could just as well be "Settling down". And Grace is preceded by Please, to get me in the right frame of mind.

The Hindu version refers to Brahma, or the Absolute; Vishnu, the Sustainer of the World; Shiva, the Inner Self; Krishna, whose name means "black", which well describes the Void; Om, the Holy Syllable, the first name of God, which is spoken with great reverence; and Guru, which is the Grace-bestowing power. In the Vijnana Bhairava (a.k.a. "Knowing God"), a scripture of Kashmir Shaivism, the five phases are described as manifestation, relishing, experiencing as Self, settling of the seed, and dissolution. This section is a commentary on that verse.

The Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim versions use the traditional words that I know of that are closest to the intended meaning, I don't know good words for everything, however.

The Christian version uses Heaven as a symbol for the peace from which life arises. Jesus is the name here for Life or Sustainer since Jesus said "I am the way, the truth, and the life"(John 14:6). Some have said that Yahweh means "I am"; and "I am" is simply the awareness of the Self cast in the form of a sentence. "Holy" is a word that when expressed with faith and sincere feeling puts the speaker in a state of humble devotion. And "Spirit" here is used to refer to the awareness of Grace. I don't know a good Christian term for the Void.

The Muslim version is very close to the phrase by which, by uttering it, one becomes a Muslim:

I(I)submittothe Lord (of)the World
Our life is our world, so I use "aalameen", the world, to refer to the sustaining of experience. If God isn't peace then I'm really missing something, so I use "rabbil", "the Lord", to refer to Peace. "Aslamtu", or "I submit", is a third form of the one Arabic word that we know in English both as Islam (submission) and as Muslim (one who submits). Mohammad, as the Prophet who bestows upon us the gift of Islam (see, Mohammad knew the trick of humble devotion, don't think otherwise), who has led those who submit to the presence of god, has the place of honor as the symbol of grace. I have left the Void empty.

The Buddhist version is somewhat obscure, in keeping with Buddhist scholarly temperament. Samaadhi is the peace from which experience arises. Samsara is the world (of suffering, typically) itself. Atman is the self, but as the Buddha pointed out the impermanence of things, implying that nothing has a true (permanent) self, I leave it as a puzzle or koan whether to label the third, self-aware phase as Self (atman) or to use that phase as an opportunity to deny the reality and permanence of samsaara by, after experiencing the sustaining phase, invoking the appellation, Anatman: non-self. Sunyataa, or emptiness, is the quality of the Void, important in Buddhism's argument that everything is ultimately empty. Sunya means empty, of course. Finally, Om Mani recalls the great Buddhist mantra, Om-Mani-Padme-Hum, Om-The Jewel-(in) The Lotus-I am. The Jewel is a metaphor for that flame of Grace in the the heart.

I have done this mantra with my breath; breath in with Peace, out with Life, in with Self, out with Void, in with Om, out with Grace. Sometimes if I do it for a long time, only Self and Grace remain.

Which leads us to the next mantra, which my Hindu guru taught me as So'ham.

A Recipe: Exhortation, Mantra, Unity

August 8, 1996

Do this, I plead with you! Dearest Thomas (but I speak not only to myself), do not think I am asking you to become stupid, to set your mind aside for the fuzzy goal of an imagined bliss, to be irresponsible and unclear and mindless. No. If you will also do this, you will have a clearer mind and come to deeper understanding. You should make time for each of your responsibilities, but this is also one of your responsibilities. Please do this!

Four secrets

May 23, 2002

I have four secrets. Shall I tell you?

1) In table tennis you need a coach if you want to be more than a garage hacker, and there are many tricks of correct form that you have to get right and that you probably won't figure out without someone who knows giving you some personal feedback. So also in life.

2) If I do two things, three things happen, very consistently. First, I stand perfectly straight (or sit), as if suspended by a string from screw in the center of your head, or as if electrocuted, for example. I mean, straight, and that includes the hips and the lower back not being rolled butt-under. Second, I lean back about four degrees, hardly at all, but just enough. Then: First, I suddenly don't care about anything. Second, you know when you go to sleep it's as if everything goes black; well here it's as if everything goes white. It's not that it really goes white, but it's just as if it does. Third, I have an positive feeling of euphoria. Anyway it works for me. But it always works for me. So try it. Try it now. Are you trying it yet? Try it now, and try it again later, and remember it. It will help you.

3) The goal of pranayama, one of the phases of yoga, is evenness of breath. The secret of what that means is that the inbreath should be equal in duration with the outbreath. If you meditate with a focus on evenness of the timing of the inbreath and the outbreath, you will find that it makes a big change in your emotional perspective, and life will seem easier and simpler and less crazy.

4) The way to get grace is to say please. That is, humble devotion is the (only) path to an inner experience of freshness and inspiration in the heart. That's the first part of the secret. The other part is that you can indeed have grace.

With love,


Copyright © 1994-2004 Tom Veatch. All rights reserved.