The Curiosity Rover landed on Mars. It’s an astounding thing and hard to believe but there are photos to prove that it is there. Conscious awareness goes off in search of this new location. It’s a basic human reaction: where is this place that wasn’t there before but it is now? A natural curiosity about it motivates me to find out. There’s an idea of something very distant, yet quite near; in terms of the Buddhist experience, it’s ‘here’ – the same space where we all ‘exist’. It’s somewhere in the known universe, in the sky, obviously, and the mind looks for a way to incline towards that place, move in that direction. I can see a part of the sky out there, through my window. So I go over and have a look: Mars is out there somewhere….
There’s a sense of distance, large empty space, and my focus reaches into this hugeness. It’s a bit like receiving an SMS from my sister in the Scottish Highlands, where she lives, up there in the cold mountains with a very faint network signal, and I read her SMS and think, what’s it like there, right now? Conscious awareness stretches out to that location and in a moment, I feel as if I’m there, then I’m back in physical reality, ‘here’ again: Delhi 30° Centigrade. I know she is there in Scotland and, for a moment, I was there too.
Another example is, I’m in Japan in the classroom and Jiab calls me on the phone: hello I’m in Helsinki! It takes a moment for me to figure it out. Where is that… ‘Helsinki?’ And all the Japanese students look at me, thinking: What’d he say, Helsinki? And I remember, oh yes, that’s in Finland … isn’t it? I’d no way of knowing she was going to be there – Jiab does this kind of thing. In the moment of recognition, consciousness flies away to what is known to be ‘Helsinki’ and flies back again. It may not have actually gone to Helsinki – it is all ‘here’ anyway – but I’m left with the distinct sense of having travelled somewhere in consciousness. It feels like I’ve been away from where the mind normally resides and now the ‘world’ seems to be bigger than it was before.
In the same way, I know Mars is there – a very definite feeling that it’s there now, the proof is that the Curiosity Rover landed on that planet and is sending us photos, much like SMS messages sent by cell phone. Before I got the news about Curiosity, I’d no idea of that location; now I think I do.
It kind of supports an idea I’ve had for some time, about conscious awareness having the ability to (seem to) move in space, across some distance. A short while ago I was in Switzerland sitting on the cushion quietly in meditation and it seemed like it was possible to hold a picture in the mind; a view I was familiar with, from the apartment there on the seventh floor. So I did that, I focused on the picture I know so well: a group of trees on the horizon, maybe 5 or 10 miles away, and sometimes you can see these trees as clear as if they were miniatures on the windowsill. When a small patch of sunlight illuminates that distant place you can even see a shadow below the trees; and they become things of substance, solid; they have weight.
There it was, in the mind’s eye, a small group of trees in the distance, illuminated by the sunshine, all the tiny details of foliage and dark shadow cast on the green field below. It occurred to me then that eye-consciousness links with its object and if that object is 5 or 10 miles away, then eye-consciousness links with it in the same way it does with objects that are close. So eye-consciousness must, somehow, travel that distance to reach it’s object. It is puzzling but how could it not be like that? There’s an aspect of eye-consciousness that spans distance; eye-consciousness is transported as far as the eye can see. But, at any rate, it most certainly involves an attitude of ‘reaching out’ or ‘peering’, and trying to ‘see’ and in a similar way there’s this phenomenon of reaching out to a known location on the planet Mars.
In this meditational landscape I was viewing at that time in Switzerland, I started to contemplate this eye-consciousness transportation phenomenon simply as a possibility – a logical possibility – and suddenly the strangest thing happened. I was being rushed off, whisked away towards that horizon point I’d visualised! Just accelerating off at a tremendous speed and for it to continue happening like this, all I had to do was keep an open mind. It went on for as long as it held my attention and eventually, of course, something caused me to let go and it began to change. After that experience, I started to see how it’s possible to have extensions of consciousness in all kinds of quite ordinary ways.
So what I’m saying is, landing the Curiosity Rover on the planet Mars, is about scientific research but it’s also about how we can use consciousness to understand the scale of it. It’s the great space starting from my doorstep and out, all around and stretching into the infinite distance. All of that is simply ‘here’.