Alone, in a quiet place, muscularly relaxed (lying down or comfortably seated), I watch the emergence within myself of mental images, permitting my imagination to produce whatever it likes. It is as though I were saying to my image-making mind, ‘Do what you please; but I am going to watch you doing it.’ [See the footnote for a similar technique recommended by Eckhart Tolle.]
As long as one maintains this attitude – or, more exactly, this relaxation of any kind of attitude – the imagination produces nothing and its screen remains blank, free of all images. I am then in a state of pure voluntary attention, without any image to capture it. I am not paying attention to anything in particular; I am paying attention to anything which might turn up, but which in fact does not turn up. As soon as there is a weakening of my voluntary effort of pure attention, thoughts (images) make their appearance. I do not notice the fact immediately, for my attention is momentarily asleep; but after a certain time I perceive what has happened. I discover that I have started to think of this and that. The moment I make this discovery, I say to my imagination, ‘So you want to talk to me about that. Go ahead; I’m listening.’ Immediately everything stops again, and I become conscious of the stoppage. At first the moments of pure attention are short. (Little by little, however, they tend to become longer.) But, though brief, they are not mere infinitesimal instants; they possess a certain duration and continuity.
Persevering practice of the exercise gradually builds up a mental automatism which acts as a curb on the natural automatisms of the imagination. This curb is created consciously and voluntarily; but to the extent that the habit has been built up, it acts automatically.
The principle of the liberative method is now clear. Man triumphs over his imaginative automatisms, not by pitting himself against them, but by consciously allowing them free play; his attitude towards them is one of active neutrality. His final triumph is the end-product of a struggle in which his voluntary attention does not itself have to take part. (Such participation, it may be added, is incompatible with its pure, impartial nature.) Man rules by dividing; refusing to take sides with any of his mental forces, he permits them to neutralize one another. It is not for Divine Reason to overthrow nature, but to place itself above nature; and when it succeeds in taking this exalted position, nature will joyously submit. (It should be noted that the curb which is imposed by the exercise on the automatisms of the imagination is not imposed by the opposition of Divine Reason to automatic nature, but by the opposition of one pole of our dualistic nature to the other pole.)
During the exercise the subject, insofar as he practices it successfully, feels himself relieved from his fundamental distress. After the exercise he falls back into this distress, which may be momentarily greater than usual. The reason for this is that he has fallen back into his ordinary state of inner passivity, so that there is nothing to neutralize his distress; at the same time his imagination, curbed for a moment, does not at once recover its compensatory power. On the whole, however, the longer the exercises are repeated, the more the subject finds himself relieved of his basic distress.
The aim of the exercises is to deliver men from their ordinary condition of wretchedness; but they do not achieve this directly. Directly they achieve the progressive development of a curb on the automatisms of the imagination. Liberation will come – and will come abruptly – only when the construction of the curb is complete and is as strong as the automatisms of the imagination. At that time we may expect the ultimate neutralization which will reconcile man’s inner dualism.
In this context it is interesting to study the state which, according to the Zen masters, precedes satori (enlightenment). At this moment the curb on the imagination has become so strong that it holds in check all the affective reactions to the stimuli of the external world. All the illusory significances which the subject used to attribute to things (significances which depended on his affective reactions) now disappear, and the subject is permanently divided into actor and spectator – but the actor has become unapparent. ‘It is like two flawless mirrors reflecting one another.’ No longer is there any distress (angoisse), and the subject experiences a kind of pure and total alleviation – which is not, however, the state of positive blessedness. There is now a condition of unstable equilibrium between the forces that delude and stupefy and the forces that tend to awake us to reality. The subject no longer has the old, false consciousness; but he does not yet possess the new consciousness. (In Zen, this state is called tai-i, literally ‘great doubt.’) Hence the subject who is in this state says of himself that he is ‘like an idiot.’ The screen separating him from objective reality has worn thin and lost its opacity. Finally, in response to some sensory stimulus, satori breaks through. In the past, stimuli from the outside world reached the subject through this screen and had the effect of stupefying him; now that they reach him directly they awaken and enlighten. The screen is imagination, is associative and discursive thinking. And it is this screen that separated the subject from objective reality and prevented him from realizing the absolute identity of the ‘I’ and the Not-I. (‘The eye with which I see God is the same,’ says [Meister] Eckhart, ‘as the eye with which God sees me.’)
The work of liberation cannot be carried out by one who is in immediate contact with external stimuli. It is not that I am incapable of achieving a state of pure attention in the course of everyday living; but I cannot maintain such a state under the continuous assault of my affective reactions to external stimuli. My efforts cannot achieve more than instantaneous flashes of pure attention. These infinitely brief instants fail to neutralize our basic distress. Indeed, my efforts may increase this distress by hindering the compensatory action of the imagination. Pure attention is a two-edged sword; if I succeed in achieving pure attention, I am working for my future liberation; but if I strive for it without success, I merely intensify my bondage. It is therefore essential that we should work upon ourselves only when we know clearly what we are doing, and only under conditions in which the work can be carried through successfully. [Editorial comment: this last sentence seems to set up a sweeping caveat, whose conditions we cannot possibly ascertain before satori.]
Between the exercises, as my training in them goes forward, I notice in the course of everyday life a certain spontaneous working of the curb which the exercises have built up. This manifests itself by the appearance within me of a certain ‘active neutrality,’ which runs parallel to my normal and natural attitude of passive partiality. This does no harm because it comes gradually, in proportion to my capacity for tolerating a weaning from compensatory imagination. It is in this ‘normal’ way that the exercise must penetrate little by little into the heart of life. We must refrain from making deliberate efforts to jerk ourselves into a state of pure attention during the course of everyday life. Such efforts must be reserved for the times when we retire from life into our exercises.
What a man can and ought to do in his everyday life, between his periods of exercise, is to undertake a persevering labor of theoretical understanding by means of his discursive reason. It is impossible for a man to understand that the exercise is well founded, impossible for him, above all, to refrain from making a direct effort at realization in the course of everyday life, if he has not uprooted from his mind, by patient intellectual work, all the erroneous ideas which have been inevitably implanted during the first part of his life – ideas of affective ‘morality,’ of a God and a Devil whom one loves or fears as persons, of ‘spiritual’ ambition, of a belief in the usefulness of direct struggle against one’s instincts, etc.
This uprooting of erroneous ideas should also have made it possible for a man to establish in his life the most positive of possible compensations, involving the least possible distress, and poising himself in the best equilibrium of which his constitution is capable. This equilibrium will be achieved, of course, in the head-downwards posture which is congenital to man; but it is necessary, none the less, for the work of liberation. The man who is badly compensated and imperfectly balanced, is fascinated by concrete existence and is unable to absent himself from life, even momentarily, in order to perform the exercise. The intelligent man will therefore accept the necessity of finding his equilibrium head downwards; but he will recognize that this is not an end, but only a means. The Gospel tells us that we must be reconciled with our brother before we pray; the balancing of our being in the conditions of everyday life represents this reconciliation. This means that a man may have to work long and laboriously on his ordinary nature before undertaking the work of transcending it. It is in this sense, and only in this sense, that it may be necessary for a given individual to give up certain temporal satisfactions, if the procurement of these satisfactions must ineluctably be paid for by an increase of his basic distress. Asceticism has in itself no efficacy – at any rate where timeless realization is concerned. Nevertheless a certain asceticism may be necessary for the achievement of the inner state of maximum calm, without which the exercise cannot be properly carried out.’