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Chris: When you mention the unconscious, what do you mean?
Tony: Something that has struck me very powerfully over the years is how we as a people relate to what I am calling the unconscious or unconsciousness. In the teachings of Buddhism we are told that fundamentally there is only the Void. This Void we tend to think of as a huge nothingness, a vacuum in which the human personality will disappear. This can seem very frightening, that behind everything is a sort of nothingness. The amusing thing is that this is an everyday human experience. When we fall into sleep we lose any sense of self. We have dropped into that Void. Our personality has indeed, as far as we are concerned, melted away and disappeared. Yet the next morning we awake and all is well. We have survived the Void.
Even so, there is something that can take our breath away in confronting the unconscious. Perhaps this is understandable only if you have used snorkelling equipment to swim in deep water. Some years ago I was swimming along the edge of an island in the Mediterranean. I had my goggles on and was enjoying the view of the seabed about 15 feet below me. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, I swam over the edge of a sheer precipice under the water. I could not see the bottom of that precipice, and the water was very clear. It literally took my breath away and I scrambled back to shallower water. Then, only bit by bit, did I dare to swim out into that amazing depth.
That has great similarities to how it feels the first time that we consciously begin to enter into the deep waters of knowing who we are – taking consciousness into what was unconscious. It is so huge, contains so much, sweeps so far beyond our usual waking vision that we feel very much like I did as I went over the edge of that precipice.
So the spiritual path is about some level of daring, of being explorative, of gaining a glimpse of or an experience of what lies under the surface of our individual life. It is, I believe, also a part of the spiritual path to gradually learn to live in those depths and express and create from what you find there.
It is the change from sinking unconsciously into sleep, and diving into those depths with awareness. I have tried to describe this more fully in my book Eye of Dreams. But here is a man’s attempt to describe it.
This was truly an experience of enlightenment. All cares, all pain fell away from me. I had an incredible sense of freedom such as I had never experience before. Every moment of every day we are free – free to choose – free to create pain or peace – free to go or stay – free to live or die. This extraordinary experience of freedom, and of the dropping away of normal perceptions, lasted for three days. Everything looked different. I don’t mean it felt different. I mean it looked different. I remember seeing a bird flying across the sky and it was simply Bird. Maybe even that isn’t true. It was simply what it is without any name.
Therefore, when I talk about the unconscious, I mean it is an area of ourselves that for one reason or another we cannot yet see. This is understandable in that from an evolutionary standpoint self-awareness is a very new and quite fragile thing. It is very vulnerable and in our times and culture breaks down very easily. If we look around immense numbers of people need artificial aids to survive. They need medical drugs such as antidepressants; they need the use of alcohol, nicotine or caffeine to help them face their everyday life. We are fragile creatures. Therefore I believe we keep our eyes closed until we are ready to see the enormity of our existence.
This enormity, and meeting it, is what I see as the spiritual path. We do not exist without the universe. We have no existence at the moment outside of the earth. And our existence depends upon the energy of the sun, of being a part of the ecology of our planet, and of our whole relationship with what we call consciousness, which very often we link with some strange material processes of our brain. If we look at ourselves clearly we see that we are an undifferentiated part, a totally enmeshed part, of the huge biological and cosmic process. The spiritual path, the entrance of awareness into that dark aspect of our own being, is fundamentally a becoming aware of that greater connection, of that at-one-ness with the universe in which we exist. That is why Bucke called it cosmic consciousness.
The essentials of the spiritual path, I see as being very much the same as the essentials of going to sleep. In other words we cannot go to sleep while we hang on grimly to self-control or focused thinking. We have to let go of our conscious will. We have to surrender our waking self to that spontaneous action of sleep. We hand over to another level of will which expresses as dreams. That takes trust. It takes courage. It takes time.
Some teachings talk of it as surrender, a yielding to the divine. However, because the idea of a God is foreign to many people, I believe it easier to see it as a surrender to what is innate in oneself. This surrender is simply a form of stilling the conscious mind to allow other aspects of self to express. It is an opening of self to receive something that has not yet emerged into the small bright light of our personal awareness.
Some teachings express it as the stilling of thought. In traditional yoga one first trained the body to be still. Once the body had become strong and could sit for a long period of time then the mind was slowed down through breath control and meditation techniques.
For a different type of temperament the process of love has been used. In this approach the love was a form of surrender in which one’s feeling self was opened to receive something beyond ones conscious personality.
As can be seen, there is a common thread in these approaches. Although they may appear quite different on the surface, they are all a form of opening the conscious self to something that it does not yet include. Fundamentally we can think of it as a letting go of preconceived ideas, concepts, goals and attitudes. A clearing of our mind and feelings so that something new can be born into the experience of who we are. Some people describe it as a state of unknowing, or an undoing of knowing.
Sometimes the spiritual path has been called the way of liberation. This is because when we begin to experience that wider self we look back and see that we were previously a sort of prisoner in a small world that we created out of our concepts and beliefs, our convictions and fears. This small prison cell of our ego, our personality, is what the wider awareness liberates us from.
See The Unconscious