Realizing Awakened Consciousness: Interviews with Buddhist teachers and a new perspective on the mind. By Richard P. Boyle. Columbia University Press, 2015.
(This piece was originally posted over at the Speculative Non-Buddhism site run by Mr Glenn Wallis. No doubt it will eventually receive a fair few comments there, so go on over and join the scrap.)
In Realizing Awakened Consciousness (RAC), Richard P. Boyle, a retired sociology professor involved with western Buddhism for several decades, interviews 11 western Buddhist teachers and attempts to develop a theory of awakening with a straightforward model for understanding its core characteristics that leaves Buddhist terminology behind. Divided into 17 chapters with the first 11 dedicated to individual interviews with teachers, Boyle draws on his own sociology background and the work of a range of popular academics. The second section, by far the more interesting, develops a theoretical model of awakening, heavily informed by sociological theory, a first as far as I am aware, along with insight and theoretical support from a number of prominent academics including; the neurologist Antonio Damasio, psychologists Alison Gopnik and Daniel Kahneman, the linguist Derek Bickerton, and sociologists Peter Burger, Thomas Luckmann and Anthony Giddens. The book ends with Boyle making suggestions for further research and an acknowledgement of the limitations of his model. What makes Boyle’s work stand out from the usual x-Buddhist fare is his understanding and elaboration of social reality and the social self, which moves discussion away from an overtly individualised model of the self and the usual droll discourse of the ego as the source of all evil. In this regard, there is a potential link to the work of Mr Tom Pepper at Speculative Non-Buddhism (SNB) and his own now retired site The Faithful Buddhist, whose ongoing and laboured critique of ideology and ideological blindness amongst Buddhists (and pretty much everybody else) has proven so enlightening. Secondly, Boyle eschews a model of awakening based on the superman and constructs his model in alignment with theories proposed by the academics above. Will it be yet another celebration of the sufficiency of Buddhism? Will it talk of the ineffable, perfect goal of perfect awakening? Let’s find out.
Boyle states that his goal in this book is to “take awakening out of the obscure and somewhat opaque world of Buddhist teaching and cast it in a form that could be communicated to anyone” (P.216). This seems like a positive aim. Boyle claims to have had an awakening experience himself whilst interviewing the teachers so we can assume that it is contagious! The list of teachers interviewed includes a number of prominent figures from western Buddhism; Joseph Goldstein, Stephen Batchelor, Ken McLeod, Gil Fronsdal, Shinzen Young, to name a few. I have to confess to being utterly disinterested in hearing or reading further personal confessionals regarding Buddhist awakening or enlightenment, especially when they fail to go beyond the limits of current discourse, so my comments on the first section of the book will be brief. Some of the interviewees are happy to describe themselves as awakened, others are not. The point of interest is uncovering patterns within the narratives provided by the teachers and then stripping them of any super-natural or superlative qualities. Boyle does this by picking out three common features in their awakening experiences. The interviews are fairly uncritical, though Boyle does admit this himself in his conclusions. In a way, the interviews reveal how much nothingness is present in these people’s experiences, which is to say, in using a Buddhist trope, how empty their experiences are, but also how little value such experiences likely hold, at least initially, for the wider public. They are certainly filled with positive changes for the individuals involved leading to a very high degree of well-being, which I do not think should be discounted, although the conditions for achieving such an uncommon state of being do seem rare and inevitably limited to those who can afford the time and resources to reproduce some of the conditions seemingly necessary for your average Joe to achieve similar outcomes. Boyle generally avoids the political implications of his project, although some pages are dedicated to a reflection of the social implications of awakening and a critique of American conservatives.
The teachers share similar backgrounds with Boyle stating that they all “started out young, were highly motivated and drawn to Buddhism, highly intelligent, and invested a great deal of time in meditation practices” (P.191). Unsurprisingly, the three main focusses of their combined practices in moving towards awakening were;
- Quieting the mind; focussing attention on immediate, sensory experience
- Letting go; living without conditioned desires, questioning beliefs, ideas and habits.
- Cultivating compassion; one’s emotional relationship to the world becomes richer
Based on the interviews, the teacher’s experiences indicated an accumulative process of small and medium sized perceptual and experiential breakthroughs that in some cases were accompanied by sudden breakthroughs in perception. These were considered to be signs of awakening by some and simply part of a wider life experience by others.
Boyle is obviously interested in finding something to define as awakening. But what is it? He points out that awakening is a vague concept and that there has been an excess of phrases used to point at it whilst suggesting it is ultimately ineffable but that if the experiences are shared, then logically, appropriate terminology should be available. He initially considers two approaches to defining the thing; an operational definition or an apophatic definition, before settling on the creation of a comparative model between awakened and ordinary consciousness, based on our current understanding of the latter. He starts out by acknowledging that awakened consciousness does not equal saintliness and that it has limits, even going as far as to point out that Gautama’s tale is an oppressive one with subsequent traditions and teachers engaged in a cock measuring contest (my words) over who has the real, authentic awakening©.
Boyle takes some infant steps in removing the excess of wonder from the thing and avoids attempting to replicate a given tradition’s model of awakening. He does hold onto some tropes found in current western Buddhist discourse, however, highlighting how the teachers spoke of a gradual process of awakening to the consciousness that he will come to define, whilst casually reminding us that these are not necessarily the “full and perfect awakening,” (P.208) whatever that might be. This occurs throughout the book, but when he relies on his sociology background, he starts to become more interesting and it is possible to see these leaky moments as a reflection of his own explorative attempt to say something of worth and make sense of his own limited conclusions.
In building towards his model of awakening, Boyle states that ordinary consciousness is caught up in the self as the primary actor in one’s world and that a disappearing self is what leads to awakening. In drawing on the teachers’ experiences, he identifies three properties of awakened consciousness;
- No separation from one’s environment; removing boundaries between self and others
- No emotional attachment to the self, fluid and dynamic, spontaneity of being, freedom, lightness, peace and equanimity
- Not knowing: awareness co-arises with action, freely, at each moment. Detachment from the self and the stories in which it is implanted
This tripartite list leaves out love, compassion and empathy, which would make sense if the awakening conceived of here is simply a perceptual shift, which he ponders at various points. Boyle mentions Joshu Sasaki, the teacher of Shinzen Young, one of Boyle’s primary informants, in a discussion in which he separates awakened consciousness from saintliness. Boyle breaks with a Buddhist taboo by claiming that awakened individuals may be able to consciously inflict pain and that awakening could be a “part-time” phenomena for some. He goes on to define psychopathy and hints that perhaps Sasaki was both awakened and a psychopath. Compassion then is not necessarily concomitant with awakening consciousness in his view, or rather, is not a required or inevitable feature. This might explain why so many new age, awakened teachers turn out to be sexual predators and immoral, narcissistic idiots, whilst subjectively enjoying a high degree of the three qualities above.
Things get interesting as Boyle discusses the potential origins of awakened consciousness, which turn out to be very similar to either a child’s or a cave man’s consciousness! The discussion actually improves, at least for a neophyte to such a topic as me, as Boyle draws heavily on Antonio Damasio’s work regarding the evolution of consciousness, defining it as “a subjective experience in which we are aware we are experiencing awareness” (P.227). I assume Damasio’s work would get a scathing review from Pepper as he speaks of pre-symbolic, non-linguistic perception, free of ideology, but perhaps there is something of worth here.
The entire body is represented in the nervous system by neuronal maps, providing a kind of virtual double. According to Damasio, these interoceptive maps “provide a direct experience of one’s own living body, wordless, unadorned and connected to nothing but sheer existence.” Signals produced by these body maps are “felt, spontaneously and naturally…prior to any other operation involved in the building of consciousness. They are felt images of the body, primordial body feelings, [which are] the primitives of all other feelings, including feelings of emotions.” (P.228)
The idea is that the meditation practices described above help a person to reacquaint themselves with such non-symbolic experience and that this forms the emergent perceptual basis for awakened consciousness. Presumably such feeling is shared across ideologies and is primordial in that it is the same as the feeling experienced by the first human beings. Boyle goes on to describe how social reality gets in the way of this level of being. As a synthetic structure, it acts to filter all sensory data through itself, reshaping it to fit the dominant narrative that holds the social reality in place with the development of language going hand in hand with the development of social realities. In identifying with our particular social reality and the role we inhabit as a social self, we lose the ability to experience and perceive outside of the symbolic percepts that dominate the narratives of each.
Boyle’s co-existing consciousnesses allow for the continued existence of the individual within social reality. This leaves behind the often absurd notion that individuals can escape human constructs and be free of the symbolic entirely. Boyle states further that language is integral to social realities and any verbal or gestural interaction requires participation in a social reality, which has been constructed by our ancestors and refined, adapted, altered and expanded by subsequent generations, including our own. One result of experiencing awakened consciousness is to see through the blinding force of the social reality and cease to reify it, even when it may provide meaning and comfort. As the social self is “defined by how (well) it fits into the stories (of the social reality) as actor, observer, experiencing agent,” (P.237) attempts to undermine its social reality can lead to all manner of problems, including alienation, the loss of meaning and the destabilisation of one’s social standing. In this negative sense, the role of awakened consciousness can lead to immense upheaval, especially as a person’s emotional well-being is so closely tied to the “presentation of the self.” The more we focus on social reality, the less we are able to perceive perceptual input and in this way our conceptual articulation of the world and its events is dominated by the social reality we identify with.
Boyle points out though that awakened consciousness is devoid of any attachment to social reality. He continues in stating the need to “penetrate the common-sense that conceals the inner mechanics of social reality…that encompasses people and alters the way they experience the world” (P.239/240). An obvious problem emerges though in this analysis. If the promise of Boyle’s model is that awakening can rid individuals of their identification and entrapment within social realities, what are the alternatives, where do they go to next? Even Boyle notes that we cannot be rid of them entirely. Additionally, to what degree do the Buddhist teachers mentioned assist individuals they meet and teach to break out of the new social realities that western Buddhism has either built or co-opted?
Boyle returns to the work of James Austin and acknowledges that current understanding of the interaction between social reality and the brain is limited but that Austin’s two brain system model may provide the key to understanding awakened consciousness, positing that ordinary consciousness is found within the egocentric processing systems while the allocentric system is where awakened consciousness resides, with the two separate, specialised brain systems usually in poor communication. Improving this communication would allow an individual, or groups to inhabit perceptual experience outside the social reality and social self that they have identified with. Rather than the non-symbolic acting as a permanent refuge in which the awakened person inhabits, the two consciousnesses would interact.
As well as Damasio, Boyle draws heavily on Alison Gopnik’s work, in particular The Philosophical Baby, to examine language development in children. Firstly, he notes that language focusses a baby’s open perception onto smaller perceptual frames. It provides the basis for the imagination and representation of events that are not immediate and a sense of time; past and future. Boyle, in part, sees awakened consciousness as a movement in reverse; a sort of reclaiming of our earliest modes of pre-linguistic perception. Such childlike perception would be accompanied by the knowledge and skills gained since then, including our relationship to social realities through language, ideas and concepts, but does such a claim leave Boyle’s conclusions open to accusations of infantilising Buddhist practitioners? Children are, what’s more, seen as naturally empathic, in particular up to the age of six, when the social self becomes more fully formed, so that empathy may be seen as a sort of innocence and unquestioning, uncritical openness to others. There is a problem of romanticising children here as some spiritual folks are want to do but it could be an avenue to look at and would resolve the issue of awakening being something we create or go out and get.
Boyle does mention the role of critical thinking in his analysis, but it is minimal and reflective of his quandary concerning the relationship between discursive thought and the thinking mind and the awakened consciousness he defines. Readers at SNB will be all too familiar with the confusion that thinking creates for many Buddhists and Boyle appears to have met a stumbling block in this regard. Is it possible that Boyle is stumbling on the results of many of our most ‘enlightened’ contemporaries? Not the ones he interviews necessarily, but those ever-smiling Buddhist and New Age teachers who giggle at the world while it burns whilst inviting their followers to let go and enjoy the sinking ship without a worry or thought. Boyle himself doesn’t claim that enlightened folks are infantile and he places critical thought amongst the qualities of awakened consciousness but it is an interesting question to ponder, especially as it could answer the question of why certain folks have managed to develop an immense capacity for pleasure whilst exhibiting extraordinary degrees of self-absorbed narcissism that mirror that of a spoilt toddler. Boyle also explores the social reality of the Piraha clan which appears to feature linguistic constraints that force the Piraha people to live in the present with a high degree of equanimity, with minimal attachments, even to loved ones. They operate with an allocentric perspective and seem to enjoy very high levels of daily happiness and stoicism. The exploration is interesting enough but perhaps their social reality needs to be critically evaluated further.
Boyle himself skirts around the term awakening throughout, settling on a distinction between ordinary and awakened consciousness that he goes on to develop into a four-part comparative model with the four parts covering conscious awareness, emotions and feelings, thinking, and meaning or ontological security. He states that awakened consciousness is a natural, physical possibility for everyone if they put in the work. His conclusion being that it is simply an alternative use of the human potential that produces ordinary consciousness.
These are some of the basic premises that inform Boyle’s conclusions
Awareness is formed by an interaction of perception and conception with perception being rooted in external and internal sensory information, and conception working with symbols, in particular, language. Due to sensory information often being incomplete, the gaps are filled by perceptual processing filling in the gaps by creating percepts that fit with previous experience. The same is true for conceptual processing. This processing is generally unconscious and generative and is usually concerned with maintaining a degree of consistency.
Ordinary conscious awareness
This is marked by the need to maintain consistency in internal narratives. The social self features as the principal character in an ongoing story that is defined by social reality within which the social self finds its role. Perceptual representations are modified accordingly in order for consistency to be made possible. This is a labour intensive process with symbolic processing acting as a drain on perceptual clarity. The experience is egocentric in Austin’s model.
This has its base in pure perceptual representations that are unconditioned by symbolic processing which implies that sensory perception in uncoupled from the narrative of the social reality, with the social self no longer being the central character and symbols no longer being manipulated to fit into a pre-existing narrative. Due to the lack of labour intensive symbolic processing, perception becomes cleaner, clearer and more vivid. Although symbolic reality is constantly available, the relationship with it is based on detachment and objectivity. The experience is allocentric in Austin’s model.
Finally, awakened consciousness is accessed by carrying out the three disciplines that form the core basis of most Buddhist meditation practice.
“To further develop this capacity, the primary task is to move attention to perceptual reality and away from wandering thinking. Finally, one must learn to accept the source of meaning that is available in perceptual reality while letting go of the emphasis ordinary consciousness places on conceptual or narrative meaning.” (P.287)
His complete summary model can be found in the appendix. There is some repetition, but I am including it so that his core conclusions can be read and critiqued by those who desire to do so using the ideas and methods developed at the SNB site.
Considering that Boyle’s theoretical claims lie heavily on the role of social reality and the social self, he uses a relatively simplistic model of both and this is one criticism I have of his work. He also relies at times on an ambiguous use of the term awakening. This is likely due to his reliance on a relatively small number of Buddhist teachers and this is possibly the weakest link in his project, which he does admit towards the end. As an initial sociological pet project, it provides some relatively objective conclusions that could easily omit the term awakening all together, and asides from advertising and an attempt to pitch the book through the allure of such a term, I see no reason for it to be used.
Boyle notes that Buddhism has primarily attracted the white and the wealthy in the West and oddly suggests that “Buddhism could benefit the poor too, but perhaps we should focus on resolving inequality as well” (P.270), with the rather worrying objective being to “produce a larger pool of potential recruits.” He attaches this to a brief analysis of the correlation between attachment to a strong social self and reality, and the fact that conservatives (in America in this case but likely true worldwide) experience greater fear, anxiety and are less curious, open, preferring quick answers, which correlates with religious fundamentalism.
The project is capped off by an interview with the retired neuroscientist James Austin (the author of Zen & the Brain (1998) and a number of further books that attempt to connect scientific findings to meditation and its results) as an appendix and both author and his informants are favourable to Buddhism and possibly influenced by the desire to fit their conclusions to Buddhism’s self-claims.
The big, big issue though is whether Damasio is right in stating that raw, non-symbolic perception is possible, then learnable and applicable in meaningful ways. If so, and if wed to some form of empathic re-engagement with the world and the dominant social realities of our time, then perhaps it could provide the basis for an objective engagement with social realities and those who inhabit them whilst accompanied by an experience of existential ease and well-being, loosely defined as awakening. Otherwise, awakened consciousness may be limited to providing a therapeutic basis for relief from the claustrophobic nature of the social self. If this leaves aside the potential to crack identification with a given social reality and social self and become acquainted with the Lacanian hole at the centre of all beings, which as many readers will know can be a terrifying experience, then awakened consciousness would seem to be no more than mere escapism.
If we accept that awakened consciousness is found in a separate, physical, cognitive system, as Austin claims, co-existing with ordinary consciousness, which is what Boyle settles on, then awakened consciousness could be an experiential possibility that one has to rediscover and then train in, get acquainted with, learn to move between the two as primarily perceptual, sensorial realities. If awakened consciousness co-exists with ordinary consciousness, then they could be seen initially as two constructed modalities of being, as subject and as de-subjectified person.
As Adrian J. Ivakhiv discussed in his essay republished at SNB (Žižek v. Buddhism: who’s the subject?), Zizek and Vajrayana Buddhism are concerned with the re-emergence of the de-subjectified individual into the world (social reality) and if Boyle’s model ends up having coinage in a wider discussion of the relevance of meditation practice and perceptual, experiential breakthroughs, then the next step would be to explore the limits and potentials of such a form of consciousness when re-engaging with social realities in ways that are set on reducing collective ignorance and suffering. Such an exploration would have to go beyond the trite discussion of compassion that so often stifles creative exploration in this area by Buddhists. In fact, does awakened consciousness stand up to the intensity and traumatic nature of global injustice and suffering without being aloof? If so, awakened consciousness could simply be the means for a retreat from the world.
Ultimately, Boyle limits his conclusions to defining the positive states that accompany the experience of emergent awakened consciousness and the reduction of existential suffering. I have discussed the tendency of awakened individuals to find justification for their experience within Buddhism and the need for them to leave Buddhism aside and find relevance for their experiences outside of Buddhism (Reconfiguring Enlightenment: A post-traditional reconfiguration) and I would suggest that if his work has value then that be the next step.
Boyle’s sociology background provides a welcome break from the scientifically focussed texts that seek to marry Buddhism to science. Boyle’s ideas become more interesting when he leaves Buddhism in the background and explores the boundaries between consciousness and perception and the social realities we are born into in the construction of a self and the possibility of de-selfing. Tom would no doubt find much to dismantle in Boyle’s text. It does have redeeming qualities, however, and it led me to reflect on the general distaste for therapeutic usages of Buddhist practices here at SNB as well as the issue of non-symbolic perception/experience, which I am not really qualified to comment on. Pepper’s arguments are convincing, yet, Boyle has articulated experiential possibilities that are of no doubt highly beneficial to those who access them. If we were to avoid absolutes, then perhaps it would be acceptable to state that through certain trainings of awareness, combined with the reflective dismantling of the habitual patterns that form the basis of the social self, we can come close to an experience that has the characteristics of non-symbolic, raw, experiential living, but that is an approximation in which we are constantly pulled back into social reality, or infiltrated by it. An awakened mind may simply have more room to choose which of the social realities available to engage with whilst no longer being identified with it, and if driven by the desire to act on the world, to work on and within those social realities where it is possible for the individual to bring about positive change.
Finally, the book is noteworthy in its attempt to leave aside world-transcending characteristics for this terminally abstract phenomena, though it inevitably encounters many of the limits laid out at the Speculative Non-Buddhism site. It is amateurish enough to be accessible to a general audience, light enough to be ignored by the hard sciences and accessible enough for a general intelligent audience who may be curious about the phenomena of Buddhist enlightenment/awakening without the religion tagged on. It would no doubt receive a better structured critique from the founding fathers of the non-Buddhism project, specifically with regards to the scientific basis for Boyle’s claims and theoretical assertions, but I have, nonetheless, attempted to provide a brief analysis of Boyle’s book with some critical thought.
Critique away folks.
Notes: this review originally appeared at Speculative Non-Buddhism.
Ordinary The results of perceptual processing are modified to be as consistent as possible with the person’s social reality and social (symbolically represented) self. Individuals see the world from an egocentric perspective and experience separation from that world and from other people. Because the amount of symbolic processing required is large, activity devoted to perceptual processing is reduced and the vividness of conscious awareness is diminished.
Awakened The results of perceptual processing are not altering by symbolic processing, although the information and expertise encoded in symbolic systems can be accessed objectively (i.e., additively). Individuals see the world from and an allocentric perspective and feel connection with that world and the people around them. Without the intense personal involvement of the social self in the drama and complexity of social reality, more processing time is available for sensory awareness and conscious awareness is more vivid.
Emotions and feelings
Ordinary Emotions are cued by stories generated by social reality, as learned during childhood. Emotions tend especially to be linked with the self and its adventures in social reality.
Awakened Feelings are initiated by interoception, and processed particularly in the brain stem. When there are no attachments to the social self, most of what we usually call emotions do not exist.
Ordinary Kahneman’s fast and slow thinking are both available. How well they work depends on attention, which in ordinary consciousness usually requires some effort. Without attention, wandering thinking is the default.
Awakened Fast thinking is most developed here and may be the only mode possible. Slow thinking requires holding in conscious awareness symbols (or percepts) that are not present in immediate experience, and wandering thinking allows thoughts to free associate without direction, so both slow and wandering thinking return the thinker to ordinary consciousness.
Meaning, or ontological security
Ordinary In a scientific framework, meaning is supported when the contents of conscious awareness are both logically consistent internally and compatible with perceptual information. One major source of folk meaning comes from sharing support within the group for the social reality that shapes conscious awareness. The other source is degree of fit between perception and social reality. To the extent that both degree of fit and social support are low, meaning is threatened or destroyed and the person experiences increased dukkha.
Awakened Conscious awareness of the perceptual reality of the moment is accompanied by feelings of truth, joy and authenticity. Perception can be questioned as possible illusion, but that does not throw into doubt feelings that we are a fully connected part of the natural order. Interoception gives rise to primordial feelings based on physical states of our body, some of which (e.g., “happiness,” “kindness,” “feeling securely grounded”) provide meaningfulness of their own