Loving Awareness as Anti-Meme
and henry shukman's insane decisions
There’s a fascinating monotony to the world’s mystical traditions. Everyone sees the same thing if they squint at their consciousness long enough. The descriptions of it, and the understandings of its significance, are inflected by the local metaphysical and religious commitments. You can think of it as the mouth of angels or the unfabricated bottom of mentation. But it’s basically all the same shit. The unmarked purity at the heart of awareness, the unity and vastness, the porousness of the boundaries of the self. Whatever kind of mystic you are, whether Catholic or Berkeleyan, you end up converging.
Meister Eckhart: “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”
Ramana Maharshi: “Be aware of the stillness that follows the ‘I am’. Sense your presence, the naked unveiled, unclothed beingness. It is untouched by young or old, rich or poor, good or bad, or any other attributes. It is the spacious womb of all creation, all form.”
They kind of sound like the same guy, right? And this monotony itself receives a lot of commentary. Ikkyu: “Many paths lead from the foot of the mountain, but at the peak we all gaze at the single bright moon.”
Also everyone loves this. It’s everyone’s favorite. To everyone this feels really good, nice, like a vacation from a lot of your worries, an invitation to be compassionate to others, appreciate both sameness and difference, and other good stuff, bliss, a lot of feelings people try to obtain at great expense through other means—gustatory, pharmacological, commercial, and so on. Maybe it feels so good that it seems self-evident that this is the fundamental nature of mind. Occasionally some people devote their whole lives to it and still, like, do a sex cult, or screw up in some other notable way, so it’s clear that this kind of mystical experience is not a panacea, but there’s something inescapably good about it.
But for something so fundamental it’s comically hard to find and hold onto! To get people to look for it, you have to attach all sorts of compelling branding to it—the promise of Enlightenment, the idea of becoming some sort of super-being who sees through all illusion and maybe also shoots laser beams. And this, then, becomes an obstacle—a pile of lenses that you try on before setting them down so you can finally absorb the elusive obvious thing.
And it doesn’t stay in view after the first time you see it—you find it, then lose it, and then eventually find it for good, maybe, but not always. Sometimes you’re just like, oh, cool, I saw the white light from the mouth of infinity, and then you wander off and don’t organize your life around transcendence, instead of organizing it around, like, whatever you see on Twitter. In fact, I think that’s the default. Ever since talking more with people about my spiritual experiences, I have discovered that weird encounters with the transcendent are the norm; most people are seized by weird and suggestive phenomena at some point, mostly they just sort of shrug and move on.
I recently read There Is No Anti-Memetics Division, a wonderful gory sci-fi novel centering around a government agency of elite special officers fighting anti-memes, entities that fade from consciousness as soon as encountered. There are all different kinds of anti-memes: sometimes symbols, sometimes facts, and sometimes monsters; some kill you, some just squirm in odd ways, but what unites them is that you forget them, forget that you’d ever encountered them, forget even that an anti-meme is a real category of existence. To give you a taste of what it’s like, at one point, a character who can glimpse anti-memes notices a tiny black crab falling out of his eyes, with the implication being that we all have little crabs falling out of our eyes and simply can’t recall this.
And as I was meditating the other day, struggling with the subtle effort of trying to let go of effort, it hit me: vast loving awareness is an anti-meme. Most of your faculties are designed to forget it. It’s something you’re not supposed to hang onto. After all, you are wired for survival: preservation lies at the heart of all your systems, at the heart of everything noticeable and interesting. Prestige, which is the clothing of status, security, reproduction, success in all the classic ways. Viewpoint, which is the clothing of tribe, belonging, safety.
Our fundamental architecture urges us towards mastery, segmentation, interpretation, control. Meanwhile, seeing what’s at the bottom of perception is not a particularly survival-oriented activity. People who go there are generally less convinced of the separateness of their existence, which is troublesome if defending your separate existence is the entire reason for your perception.
Memes are effective when they maximally compress and do so in a way that’s maximally controversial. They’re incredibly crude maps that give birth to territory, whereas an anti-meme is a territory that melts its own map.
Another thing I read recently was One Blade of Grass, a memoir by Henry Shukman, a Zen teacher. One thing I loved about the book was that he made no attempt to rationalize his decisions: he just presented the irrational behavior that composed his life. And his behavior was completely insane!
Get this: Shukman grows up with horrible eczema in the emotional prison that is a fractured British family. He’s socially isolated, his skin falls off, he struggles with self-repulsion, his only happiness is traipsing through the damp countryside. But then, during a gap year, he has a mystical experience in South America, what the Zen people call Kenshō. It’s wonderfully described:
…the water was fascinating, blindingly white yet completely dark. Scales of brilliance slid over darkness, so it alternated between thick matte black and blinding light. But water was transparent, so was air, yet there the surface was, the sea’s skin, thick as elephant hide. What was he actually seeing?
As he pondered this question, suddenly the sight was no longer in front of him. It was inside him. Or he was inside it, as if he’d stepped into the scene and become part of it. He could no longer tell inside from outside. At the same instant the whole world, around, above, below—the sand, the sea, the light on the water—turned into a single field of sparks. A fire kindled in his chest, his fingers tingled, in fact everything tingled. The fire was not just in his chest but everywhere. Everything was made of drifting sparks. The whole universe turned to fire. He was made of one and the same fabric as the whole universe. It wasn’t enough to say he belonged in it. It was him. He was it. The beginning and end of time were right here, so close his nose seemed to press against them.
Suddenly he knew why he had been born: it was to find this. This reality. His life was resolved, the purpos of his birth fulfilled, and now he could die happy. He could die that very night and all would be well.
Fantastic! And if that weren’t enough, also at right around the same time, his eczema goes away. Having departed from the soggy fear of England, a force beyond his comprehension makes him well.
And then… he goes home and does the same fucking thing as he did before! And worse! He goes to college, knowing that it will make him miserable and isolated! And then it does! His eczema gets worse and he walks the night bitter and alone! And it takes him years to get around to systematically investigating his one experience of profound happiness!
But also, of course? Of course he doesn’t pursue the mystical experience. He wasn’t really made for that. To some extent, he was made to do insulate himself against destruction, which is what the mystical can look like. He couldn’t allow the wilderness within to encroach on all of the structure. Free of strong influences to the contrary, the normal British mental activity resumed.