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Chapter 52 of Meditator’s Field Guide copyright 2017, Doug Kraft.

The Evolving Self

Don’t take yourself so personally.

What would the Buddha say to us if he were alive today?

I suspect that his core teachings would be much the same. He had that together. But as mentioned in the last chapter, the way the average person thought about life in the Indian, agrarian culture of the fifth century BCE was different from that of the average person in the Western information culture of the twenty-first CE. Human consciousness has evolved dramatically in the past 2,500 years. If he were alive today, might he offer new approaches and practices?

As audacious as it is to answer this question for him, surely he would respond “Yes.” He had a genius for creating styles of meditation suited to the proclivities of his students. Undoubtedly he would offer new techniques to our 21st century mindset.

I suspect that one of the most dramatic differences would be his teaching about selflessness or the impersonal nature of phenomena (anatta). The Buddha never said we don’t have a self — only that there is no enduring self-essence or soul independent of everything else. We could call this “selflessness.” Or we could call it an “infinite self” that expands to include everything. Selflessness implies getting rid of the self. The infinite self implies allowing it to encompass all that is. These methods move in opposite directions to arrive at the same place.

The path to selflessness or non-self may have been more accessible to people in the Buddha’s time. The path to the infinite self may be more accessible to us today. But both release the tension in self-identity and arrive at the same place.

In this section we’ll pick up themes introduced earlier in the book and look at them through a 21st century lens. The themes include:

In the next chapter we’ll look at the actual stages of consciousness that have emerged or are emerging in humanity. We’ll be particularly interested in the highest stage generally available in the Buddha’s time (Traditional Literal Consciousness) and how much further we’ve come today. In the following chapters we’ll look at the implications these stages have for our practices and our lives.

But first it would help to clarify the difference between states of awareness and stages of consciousness, and how each relate to self-identity. We’ll start with self-identity itself and how it might have first arisen.


Evolving Self

Imagine two prehumans walking through the primeval forest. The first is at one with the birds, trees, mountains, bears, wolves, and everything else. He ambles along peacefully. His life is content. And short. His mellowness makes him an easy target for large carnivores looking for lunch.

The second person is spooked by every shadow and rustle. He has a thick sense of self he wants to preserve. He scurries through exposed fields like a paranoid squirrel. His life is anxious. And long.

Guess whose DNA we inherited?

When we were a marginal species in a world of powerful predators, there was no evolutionary advantage to feeling at one with all life, and every advantage to feeling a dense sense of self to be protected from all those beasts.

It worked. We have contained or wiped out creatures that posed significant existential threats to us. We are at the top of the food chain. Now our desire to protect ourselves is the most significant threat to our existence. We are our most significant enemy.

Yet that sense of self is still wired into us. The Buddha called it bhava tanha, the desire to exist as a separate individual. It’s known as an anusaya or underlying tendency. An anusaya is a hidden hindrance because it is hard to see directly. It colors our experience and shapes our behavior without drawing attention to itself. When it is triggered by a threat, we see the threat, not the instinct itself.


Evolving Consciousness

Over a million years ago, the human brain became large, complex, and malleable. Its ability to learn from fellow creatures and the environment skyrocketed.

Since then human evolution has had less to do with DNA and genes and more to do with how we train the flexible minds of our children. Human evolution today has little to do with changes in body structures — teeth, claws, and bones — and a lot to do with changes in consciousness.

In English, the word “consciousness” has two different meanings. One is “awareness.” When we say, “I lost consciousness,” we mean awareness ceased. When the suttas says, “eye consciousness is different from ear consciousness,” they mean seeing awareness is different from hearing awareness, which it obviously is!

The other meaning of the word “consciousness” is how we process information and assign meaning to it. When a five-year-old, fifteen-year-old, and fifty-year-old walk down the street together, they see and hear the same things. But they are in different worlds because they process those sights and sounds differently. When a conservative and a progressive look at the political scene, they process similar information differently and draw different conclusions.

Consciousness is like a mental lens that focuses, filters, defines, and distorts raw awareness. When looking through a pair of glasses, we don’t notice the lenses, only the objects we see. Similarly, we are rarely aware of our consciousness, but it has a dramatic effect on how we see.

So when we talk about the evolution of consciousness, we are talking about changes in how the mind processes information and assigns meaning to it — changes in the lenses through which we see the world.


States versus Stages

There are various states of awareness and stages of consciousness. States of awareness and stages of consciousness are very different from each other.

All states of awareness are theoretically available to us all the time. They are right under our noses, if you will. Some ways to describe the spectrum of awareness states include:

Stages of consciousness are very different from states of awareness. All stages are not available at once: they develop in sequence over time because each stage builds upon earlier ones. If we know our stage of consciousness and work hard to cultivate the next, it takes about five years to move up to the next. Meditation can be a catalyst for moving up through stages more quickly because meditation takes the structures of consciousness apart and puts them back together again. They feel more fluid and shift more easily.

Stages of consciousness can dramatically affect our sense of self. Some ways to describe the spectrum of stages include:

These brief descriptions of stages are very different from states. They hint at how dissimilar states of awareness are from stages of consciousness.

We’ll explore the stages of consciousness in more detail in the next chapter. For now, it’s enough to appreciate how different the states of awareness are from the stages of consciousness. Awareness allows us to enjoy beautiful music. Consciousness allows us to compute the physical laws that govern how the strings vibrate. They are very different realms indeed.


Anatta Is Not about Awareness

One of the Buddha’s most difficult ideas is non-self or selflessness (anatta). It is tough because this teaching is fundamentally different from most of his other teachings.

Most of the Buddha’s teachings are about awareness. The jhanas are about cleansing the mirror of awareness until we come to pure awareness. His teachings about suffering and impermanence are about awareness of things we can experience directly.

However, his teaching about anatta is not about awareness — it’s about how we interpret awareness. It’s about how our consciousness creates a sense of self. Anatta is about consciousness.

One reason anatta can be tough to follow is because his teachings were directed toward a fifth-century-BCE culture whose consciousness was very different than ours today.

So the next chapter looks further into anatta and stages of consciousness.

I found that the chief difficulty for most people was to realize that they rarely heard new things, that is, things that they had never heard before. They kept translating what they heard into their habitual language. They had ceased to hope and believe there might be anything new.

— P. D. Ouspensky



This theory is, of course, speculative. It’s difficult to get hard empirical evidence for forces that played out millions of years ago. However, we do know that humans descended from scavengers who found food and safety through their knowledge of the world more than through claws, teeth, or unconscious instincts. They developed large, complex brains that allowed them to map the world. When a strong survival instinct interacted with a complex neural network, they probably developed a map of themselves as well — a self concept. This highly developed — some would say “hyper-developed” — sense of self that helped our ancestors to survive is now a threat to our survival. Most of the major problems we face from income polarization to political gridlock to environmental change to war can be traced to a hyper-developed sense of self.

Copyright 2017 by Doug Kraft

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