Monday, December 05, 2011

Practising Presence

We are all continually wondering all the time what we should do and what we shouldn't. At a very superficial level, we may seem to apply so many different criteria to decide the question. Physical, social, spiritual, egoistic, and so on. But, at a more fundamental level, we always strive to do something that yields more value.

The question of deciding the value of something is fundamental.
Here's one thought that more and more frequently appears to me as very sensible:
  • If a moment is spent in conscious joy, the moment goes in our account of valuable moments.
  • If a moment lacks either of the two elements -- consciousness and joy -- it's a moment lost.
  • And then the value of life (or length of valuable life) could be measured in terms of the accumulation of valuable moments.
 (see figure below)
Also, for reference, we use the following definitions of both the above terms:
  • Consciousness: When you are mindful of the current experience
  • Joy: When you are enjoying the current experience. A significant part of you wishes the experience to continue for the moment.


 The above may seem like a naive, simplistic criterion. The biggest disadvantage of the above theory is that it can't be directly put to use to come up with an universally applicable list of value-adders and value-subtractors. We aren't looking for such a list. We are looking for some further insight than nothing.

Let's illustrate our point through a bunch of examples:
  • unconscious, joyless: Coma, death, mechanical toil
  • unconscious and joyful: intoxication
  • conscious and joyless: Boredom, toil, fighting
  • conscious and joyful: Meditation, eating, sex, sleep, sports, nature-view, artistic pursuits, praying, love, humour, living

Not all examples in the above list belong to their respective quadrant permanently. The list is to just bring home feelings of familiarity to understand what we mean by the 4 quadrants. For example, mechanical toil, often when we are doing chores or when a mechanic operates a machine, we tend to loose ourselves in an absent minded way. The mind isn't necessarily thinking anything at all at that time, leave alone thinking something nice. In fact, in such situation, our mind often goes dull and numb to avoid feeling the pain of doing something we don't like. Similarly, eating or sex needn't necessarily be done in a conscious and joyful way. I have met many people who aren't even aware of what they are eating while eating like glutton. For them, getting done with their meal and getting back to what they think is useful stuff is the prime goal of their life at that moment. Similarly, think of prostitutes for whom having sex is merely a part of their job. It's unlikely that they enjoy sex in all its glory. It's hard to say which of the 4 quadrants such an activity should be put into.

Duality between Joy and Consciousness

Why should it be so difficult to achieve joyful consciousness? We often talk about how ignorance is bliss. It can be seen easily that there’s often a direct trade-off between joy and consciousness. The more conscious we are, the larger ground of knowledge we have to deal with; and larger are the chances that something won’t be quite right in the whole thing.

What's here and now?

At this juncture, we need to revisit the definition of consciousness. What does it really mean to be conscious. We observe that consciousness is always partial. Being conscious of one thing results in our being oblivious of something else. Being conscious of the present causes us to forget about past and future.

One may try to tackle this issue by deciding to focus on the here and now. However, to define here and now is, I think, a very metaphysical difficulty. To say that here is where my body is, and now is the time read on my watch, would be an oversimplification. Often the body becomes a very insignificant element of our presence. Similarly the fact that we are situated in a particular point on the time axis could be an equally inconsequential fact. To focus on either in such a situation wouldn't necessarily be the wisest thing to do. For instance, a poet may be giving birth to a beautiful poem thinking about his childhood friends who are geographically separated. Where is he? When is he? Where should he focus his attention to practise presence?!

Spiritual Perspective

Consciousness and joy aren't mere boolean values. They aren't merely determined by their presence or absence at a moment. There's also an aspect of intensity associated. Spirituality deals in intensifying both these parameters. An idea is that a moment conceals in its bossom a possibility of infinite joy and infinite experiences. An enlightened soul would be able to explore all these infinite experiences. That is the state of perfect meditation (समाधि, samadhi). An individual experiencing a moment in all its infiniteness has conquered death in a sense.

An important interpretation of the state of samadhi is the dissolution of the duality between consciousness and joy. In the spiritual state of being, penetrating consciousness is the source of intense joy, instead of being a deterent of the same.

The above idea is mystical. I would take it seriously, if not literally. The state of perfect meditation is probably only achievable in another world devoid of the non-idealness of a physical existence. But, I do believe that trying to approach it makes practical sense. Every finite bit achieved in the direction of infinite joy for infinite time has a non-zero value-add to this life.

I think I will not meet much opposition if I say that the prime goal of our life (apart from self-preservation) is stable state of joy and fulfilment. Worldly ways prompt us to take many circuitous routes to that goal, almost tangential to its direction. On the other hand, I feel, every step taken directly in the direction of that happiness, through self-discovery and deeper understanding of what really makes us happy, is a transcendation from these orbital routes to happiness, closer and closer to the actual goal.

Is it possible to apply the concept of alertness and joy to wider questions of ethics? I think, it is. We'll think a bit about that shortly.

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