A Universal Theory of Awakening
by Michael W. Taft
Full-blown awakening means to notice clearly that everything you experience is a brain-generated virtual representation arising in working memory. This is known in various traditions as nondual awakening, understanding the nature of mind, and so on.
Your senses gather data about the world around you, as well as your internal state. This data streams to the brain, where it goes through layers and systems of processing. The processed sensory data is then assembled into an ongoing, continuously-updated virtual representation of the world around you and the you in the world. This virtual representation is experienced in working memory, moment by moment. Voilà – the experience of being alive!
Usually this experience of self-and-world (sometimes one longs to be writing in German, which would make this clumsy phrase into a nice, neat noun, something like “selfworld”) is transparent, meaning that we are not aware that it is a representation. We take it to be the real world which we are experiencing. And, of course, there is a real you (a human being with blood and guts) and a real world (other people and animals, plants and planets, and, well, everything) out there. But you have never experienced this real world directly. You are only ever experiencing the brain-generated representation of the world, created from the real world impacting your senses. Furthermore, you have never experienced yourself (the blood-and-guts-being) directly, but only the brain-generated representation of yourself. These representations are woven together, out of multiple streams of sensory data, moment by moment in working memory, into the self-and-world experience.
The Role of Representation
The highest awakening possible is to notice that there is nothing in working memory that is not a representation. All your most intimate thoughts are representations. All your most precious emotions are representations. The feeling of what’s going on in your right thigh joint right now: a representation. The cat on desk, the person across the room, the sunlight on the house plants, the sun itself, are all nothing but representations in working memory at this moment. As representations, they are all equally empty (meaning, metaphorically, just “images” or “fantasies” in the brain) and equally weighted. Like the color, depth, meaning, story, people, and emotions represented in a movie are all just photons on a flat screen, all of reality, all of self-and-world in personal experience is equally a construction presented to working memory (“It’s all one.” “I am one with everything!”)
From this we can work our way down to smaller awakenings, simply by subtracting some part of full awakening. For example, the usual experiences that fall under the umbrella-term “no-self” are simply the experience of the sense of self as a brain-generated representation, but leaving the sense of the world relatively intact as solid and real. Noticing the representational nature of the experience of emotions is responsible for most forms of arhat-like manifestations. Cessations happen when part or all of this representation collapses because the brain temporarily stops generating it. The higher intensities of mindfulness practice are the result of narrowing the scope of working memory to such a small area of sensory experience that its representational construction becomes obvious (i.e. metaphorically, you can see the “pixels” out of which the image is created).
The word awakening, in this case, is a metaphor. Being asleep means that you still experience the self-and-world representation as transparent. You believe the “dream” your brain is assembling. The extent to which the self-and-world representation has become opaque (i.e. you see its constructedness) is the extent to which you are awake. You have awoken out of the “dream” of the representation of self-and-world.
Altruism and Awakening
Most other forms of what is called being a saint or bodhisattva or tzaddik, etc., are centered around a focus on altruistic behaviors which may or may not be based in awakening. While these are a definite good in terms of relief of suffering, they are indicative of nothing concerning awakening. Awakening makes altruistic behaviors much more likely and more effective, but it’s possible to learn altruism on its own—as a set of rules and behaviors—without awakening. Even though it’s highly desirable to have both together, they are orthogonal dimensions.
The ideas about awakening (or enlightenment or liberation) that concern magical abilities are mistaken. The actually-existing world of the human you and the physical world (which you will never know or experience) is governed by the usual laws of physics. There is wiggle room here, however, because our understanding of physics is imperfect. We don’t actually know everything about how reality works, nor can we ever know anything scientifically about how Deep Reality works.
Awakening, as defined, can be leveraged into many actionable, helpful, satisfying, and useful ends for ourselves and others in the world around us. Noticing the constructed nature of the sense of self greatly facilitates improvements in behavior, i.e. reducing the suffering of self and others. Noticing the representational nature of the world around us can be trickier, because it can point towards a false sense of irreality and lead to all manner of what is known as spiritual bypassing (i.e. I don’t have to care about the world because it’s not real, already perfect, etc.) A healthy version of this full awakening goes in a very different direction, where we realize that our judgments and biases (and indeed all concepts) about others are merely part of or representational construction. There is a real world out there (and in here) to live in, participate fully in, love in, and die in.
- Awareness or consciousness are first-personal experiential terms for what is experienced in working memory. Given the baggage that has accumulated around them, they should be tossed on the junk bin of history. Unfortunately, we are probably stuck with them in normal speech. The scientific term should be working memory.
- I’m using working memory as the best-available term at this time. While there are problems with this term too, it’s close enough to be appropriate for an article of this depth and length (i.e. not a long article about neuroscience).
- Understanding the sharp differentiation between the third-person concepts presented here and a first-person experience is crucial. If those two get mixed up, total confusion is the result. In other words, the description of awakening offered above is, essentially, dualistic. That doesn’t mean that nondual experiences aren’t possible.
- Notice that this theory says nothing about the existence or nonexistence of a deity. Such a question is beyond the scope of any rational discourse. We cannot know anything about Deep Reality.
- The statements about the relationship between awakening and compassion have caused sufficient confusion that I will write a separate post about that specifically. TL;DR – Compassion is super important, but different than awakening.
- Nothing is true.
cloud photo by Peter McEwen
sunrise photo by Tonmoy