Updated: Mar 4
There is a condition in which life flows by itself. It does not matter what exactly is experienced, but whatever happens seems to unfold following its own movement, without any need for intervention, control, steering; and without any concern or anxiety about where it might go. There is no sense of ‘me’ doing ‘this’, and even no sense of ‘me’ observing ‘this’, because even consciousness flows by itself, without any need for anybody (‘me’ included) to run or direct it. To put this condition in one word, it might be called ‘spontaneity.’
Spontaneity occurs (and this can be interpreted in degree, hence, it occurs insofar as) when the radical difference between consciousness and its contents becomes apparent. Ordinarily, one is conscious of this or that content of experience, and ‘being conscious’ is taken to be equivalent to the experience itself (to the content). I’m conscious of this sight in front of me, and I think that my consciousness of the sight is the sight itself or the fact that I see it. This is one common way in which consciousness is conflated with its content and the radical difference between the two is ignored.
The difference between consciousness and contents is radical because consciousness, by itself, has nothing in common with any content whatsoever, being uniquely the knowing that some content is appearing. Whatever appears as an object of consciousness is thus made possible and available by consciousness, and yet it is not consciousness as such. The stronger attention lies on the specific contents that appear, the stronger the engagement with them, the stronger the ignorance of the radical difference between consciousness and its contents. Consciousness somehow hides itself in every conscious experience, as something that is transparent, something that is seen through. As I see a visual form through the eye, I see the form, but I don’t see the eye itself through which I see the form. In a sense, the condition for seeing the form is not seeing the eye, if the eye as such was not transparent to the sight, I could not see any other form. Similarly with consciousness, which is transparent in every conscious experience of something else.
Recognizing this difference entails that consciousness cannot be experienced as an object, or that any time that consciousness becomes and object of experience it is lost as such, and what is actually experienced is just a representation of consciousness. In this sense, consciousness is meta-phenomenal, its nature lies beyond what appears in experience (beyond the phenomenal world). This difference also reveals what the nature of consciousness is, namely, something that has nothing in common with its content or with the phenomenal world, hence, no identity nor difference, neither time nor space, neither multiplicity nor unity, and so forth. Consciousness, in itself, is thus a pure, empty, silent, formless knowing that.
When the radical difference between consciousness and contents becomes apparent, then the ground of all experience (consciousness itself) is acknowledged as beyond any qualifications (including it being ‘me’ or ‘myself’), and all its contents (including ‘me’ as this particular individual) are acknowledged as unfolding on their own, since their presence and nature is recognized as originating from something that is entirely different and separate from consciousness itself. This difference is still a relation, consciousness and its contents are related, but in their being different from one another, they are also recognized as being mutually independent and unfolding on their own. Identity arises from the mutual recognition of one not being the other.
The ordinary sense of identity, appropriation, and control centered around the sense of self is based on a fundamental identification of consciousness and its contents, which allows for a view of ‘myself’ as the conscious agent that can manipulate contents for achieving my own wishes and desires. When the radical difference between consciousness and its content is acknowledged, this view dissipates and becomes impossible, and hence all attitudes of appropriation, ownership, control, collapse as well, or rather fade as dream images upon waking up.
Is spontaneity something one should be striving for? This question betrays an ordinary perspective in which ‘I’ got to decide where to put my energies and which goals I want to realize. Spontaneity is a structural condition, something that arises from the fundamental structure of experience itself (the difference between consciousness and its contents). Spontaneity is also something that is in the nature of this structure to realize, since consciousness that does not know itself is not fully conscious, and contents that are not recognized in their own difference from consciousness are not fully acknowledged as contents. Insofar as the structure of experience aims at actualizing itself fully, then it aims at realizing spontaneity. Hence, spontaneity is not something that one particular individual achieves, but rather something that occurs at some point in an individual setting as a result of an internal striving of the structure of experience itself towards its own self-realization.
However, from a point of view internal to this development, spontaneity appears to be realized through practice, namely, as the result of a methodical uncovering of the radical difference between consciousness and its contents. From the point of view of the structure of experience, this is just how the evolution takes place, namely, as an individual practicing for their own relinquishment and surrendering as an individual agent and controller of experience.
What does this practice involve? The goal of practice is the full acknowledgement of the radical and structural difference between consciousness and its contents, which discloses natural spontaneity. This difference is mystified and ignored through all those attitudes that presuppose the opposite, namely, appropriation, ownership, and control of a subject over their own experience. Most of these attitudes build upon each other and create complex structures, made of feelings, emotions, perceptions, memories.
A first stage of practice consists in peeling out these structures, by weakening any concerns for particular objects and undermine the habitual forms of reactivity to them aimed at manipulating and steering the external conditions. This first stage results in an increased sensitivity and interest for understanding the structure of experience itself, rather than any specific content of experience.
The second stage proceeds in this investigation by undermining the basic forms of identification between consciousness and contents. The grosser form of identification is the identification with a physical body, hence the first step consists in dissolving this identification between conscious experience and the body, realizing that the body itself is just a content of consciousness. A subtler form of identification concerns the domain of feelings and intentions, or all those movements in which one performs the role of an agent or doer. A second step thus investigates this domain by uncovering the fact that is possible to dispense entirely with this role and that one can experience without having to control experience itself. An even subtler form of identification concerns the understanding itself. Intelligence allows one to interpret experience, to observe it, to know it. Hence, one ordinarily identifies as the ‘observer’ of experience or with one’s own understanding or intelligence. A third step consists in refining this experience of the understanding to the point that it can appear in its emptiest and purest form, as just pure understanding that there is experience. Then one can acknowledge that even this understanding is still a subtle action, an unfolding, hence a content that is acknowledged and experienced within something broader, namely, consciousness itself. Having relinquished even identification with the observer, anything in the whole field of experience becomes opaque to consciousness, in the sense that it becomes like a mirror, which reflects what consciousness is not: not a body, not a doer, not an intelligence. In this mirror, consciousness can recognize itself by recognizing what it is not, while at the same time, all contents are also acknowledged for what they are, via the acknowledgment of what they are not. Here, ignorance ceases, spontaneity occurs.