How to Stay Conscious 2

Let’s call this tip the bouncing-tennis-ball method. I’m giving it a stupid name but as you’ll see, it’s a technique for attaining samadhi taught by Patanjali in the ancient Yoga Sutras. Sadhana doesn’t get more serious than that!

I assume you’ve read my article How to Stop Thoughts and understand what it means to be conscious.

Now you’re on the next step: staying conscious.

I’m going to talk about several things in this article. It may appear disjointed but please bear with me. There’s a method to my madness.

Susan Blackmore is a psychology professor and Zen practitioner who noticed years ago that she was usually unconscious. She discovered that she could make herself conscious for a moment or two by asking herself, “Am I conscious now?”

I suggested that same method of becoming conscious in How to Stop Thoughts.

“Am I conscious now?” is a method of becoming conscious. It’s not a method of staying conscious. But you can make it into a method of staying conscious if you ask it over and over again. You repeat the question every few seconds to keep putting yourself back in consciousness before you have a chance to slip out.

It’s like bouncing a ball over and over on a tennis racket to keep it in the air, preventing it from ever touching the ground.

The crucial thing is to ask the question again before you’ve lost consciousness.

Susan Blackmore realized this too. In the original version of her famous article Am I Conscious Now? (well, it’s famous to me anyway — it should be a classic), she talked about repeating the question, but she tried to remember to repeat it after she lost consciousness. This is a useful thing to do, but it’s not the same as repeating the question before consciousness slips away. Then a few years later she turned the article into a book chapter and in this new version she described her discovery of the method of repeating the question before consciousness gets lost. Here’s what she says in the book (Ten Zen Questions). She uses the term “door closed” for unconsciousness.

Is it possible to keep on asking the same question for a long time, I wonder. The logic is simple. Asking this question always gets the answer “Yes”. So if I keep on asking it I should remain conscious as long as the question is alive, shouldn’t I? I try, and as the years pass it becomes easier to keep the question open. No longer does a door quietly close, only to be wrenched open again in fury at having let it close unnoticed once again. Gradually, gradually it is possible to keep asking the question. The words aren’t really necessary any more. Rather, there just seems to be a questioning attitude, an openness of mind. Am I conscious now? Yes, I am, keep on that way, and now, and now, and gently now.

Like Susan says, “Now, and now, and gently now.” Repetition. It’s a little bit like a mantra except you don’t necessarily repeat words. You repeat the act of wondering whether you’re conscious.

These moments of wondering or questioning are like repeated impulses of energy that keep a rocket in the air, that keep you conscious.

Or we can compare it to a bouncing tennis ball. We keep it in the air by bouncing it repeatedly off a racket.

This is a very old technique. Susan has rediscovered it. Patanjali talks about it the Yoga Sutras which he wrote approximately two thousand years ago. It’s the most famous Yoga book ever written.

First, in verse III.11, he says:

The attainment of the samādhi state involves the elimination of all-pointedness [i.e. wandering] of the mind and the rise of one-pointedness [i.e. concentration].

Samadhi means continuous, unbroken attention. Continuous consciousness, which is the subject of this article, is a type of samadhi.

Then, in the next verse, Patanjali goes on to explain how to accomplish that one-pointedness in order to attain samadhi:

In that regard, the attainment of one-pointedness occurs when the image in the mind that has just passed is the same as the image in the mind that is present.

He mentions only two moments, the immediate past and present, but he means that this process continues indefinitely. As time passes there is a series of new past moments and new now’s, and as each now slides into the past, the meditator generates a new image that matches the receding one. In other words, the meditator attains one-pointedness by repeatedly renewing the image so the present moment continues to be the same as the receding past moment. Although the language is obscure to us (it is, after all, roughly 2000 years old), it’s the same idea as the repeatedly bouncing tennis ball.

I’ve quoted Edwin F. Bryant’s brilliant translation because out of a dozen translators whose work I’ve looked at, he’s the only one who understands the second verse. The other translators have no idea what it means and produce word salad. Bryant’s understanding is evident from his commentary on the verse of which I’ll quote just a bit:

Concentration involves replacing a previous mental image with the same image and so on in an ongoing series. This is like the roll of the identical image on the consecutive slides of a movie reel, thereby producing what appears to be a static picture but is in actuality a flow of identical but separate momentary images…

This is the same technique as Susan’s. It’s true that Patanjali is talking about samadhi on an object while Susan is talking about samadhi without an object, but they are both samadhis and the method is the same.

In Susan’s words:

Now, and now, and gently now.

As Bryant says, like frames in a movie.

Like a bouncing tennis ball.

Photo by Laren Helms

4 thoughts to “How to Stay Conscious 2”

  1. I have been trying to stay in what you call consciousness. I am at a point where I don’t need any meditation or quiet to stay aware of my own presence. My state is generally without thought, when a thought or significant feeling arises I immediately enquire as to it’s source. I am still able to do things like watch the news, be with friends, and even write emails while in this state. Even when I do something that requires thought it seems different. I am no longer absorbed in the thinking but am instead aware of the “I” behind the thought and also of he who is witnessing the “I”. My question is this; am I in the conscious or aware state as you would describe it? Should I be able to remain aware of the Self while at the same time having my body and mind actively doing other things? Sri Nisargadatta seemed to think so in the book I am That, yet I could be interpreting it wrongly.

    1. It’s only fair that you ask me if this is “the” aware state because I’ve written repeatedly about “the” aware state. But the question makes me realize that I chose my words poorly. It would be better for me to say that there are times when we are less aware and times when we are more aware, and more is better. Yes, without a doubt you have been experiencing more awareness. One of the goals of sadhana is to experience more awareness as much of the time as possible, and in order to accomplish this, we must remain aware while we are engaged in activities. So yes, it’s good to remain conscious while we talk to friends and write emails.

      When people first notice awareness, they often experience it as the opposite of thinking. They can have one or the other but not both at the same time. They find that awareness stops thinking and thinking stops awareness. The two states are opposites like light and darkness. This is how I’ve described awareness on this website. But some people can remain aware while they think. Sometimes the name “witness state” is used for the state in which awareness remains while thought takes place. If you can get into the witness state and remain aware while thoughts occur, that’s good.

    1. Hi Paul. Sorry I took so long to approve your message.

      The practice discussed above (Susan Blackmore’s method) doesn’t have anything to do with objects. It simply tells you to stay conscious. Therefore the question, “The object doesn’t have to stay the same?” doesn’t apply to this practice.

      Paying attention to objects is one thing. Being conscious is something else. There is some relationship between them, but they are not the same thing, and it’s possible to aim straight at consciousness without paying attention to objects. Susan’s technique (which I described above) does just that.

      Realization can be described as consciousness without objects. In fact Franklin Merrell-Wolff wrote a book about realization called “Philosophy of Consciousness Without an Object.”

      Mahasi Sayadaw’s techniques, described in the article you linked, are different from Susan’s. Unlike Susan’s technique, they focus attention on objects.

      I didn’t explain Susan’s method very well here because I wanted to focus mainly on the detail of the bouncing ball. You might enjoy reading Susan’s description of the method. It’s very short and simple:

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