Life as an Automaton vs. Presence

“The context of the general teachings is one of talking to a sentient being who is experiencing uninterrupted bewilderment – one thought or emotion after another like the surface of the ocean in turmoil, without any recognition of mind essence. This confusion is continuous, without almost any break, life after life.”

~ Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920-1995),
Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen Master,
in As It Is, Vol. II


Perhaps it was in a junior high science class that I first saw this half-minute video of ping pong balls exemplifying a nuclear fission reaction. It comes to mind today when I consider how we live mostly as automatons in reaction to the day’s sights, sounds, and events – mostly devoid of an inner life.

The ball drops into the chamber with the first thought that stirs you from a night’s sleep. Perhaps it’s a worry, or a news item on the radio which woke you, or remembering an early morning meeting for which you need to rush. With that first thought, the mind’s chaos begins, and continues throughout the day until the last thought is expended, and sleep stills the mind.

If we closely examine the mind’s activity, we find it functions mostly by stimulus-response and associative thinking. For example, I see on the TV an ad for ice cream (stimulus) which reminds me (association) that I have chocolate chip cookies on the kitchen counter. As I go to the kitchen (response), I see the day’s unopened mail (stimulus) which I shuffle through (response). I see an envelope from a bank (stimulus) which reminds me (association) that I haven’t paid an important bill which must be paid ASAP. I hurry over to the computer to make an online payment (response). As the computer powers up, it displays my Yahoo home page whose headlines announce another drop in housing prices (stimulus), and I begin to worry about my financial security (response). But then I hear the TV show resuming in the living room (stimulus), and I rush back (response) without cookies in hand or payment made. … ad infinitum. Sound familiar?

Notice how such living is entirely in reaction to external with consciousness bouncing from one stimuli to another. Such living is a form of entrancement. As if a wizard cast a spell, “You shall sleep to an inner life, ensnared in the life of an automaton: functioning – yes!, but self-conscious – no!”

There will be moments, of course, when the spell’s power weakens, and temporarily we may experience “free attention”: attention that exceeds the attention required to think the thought, feel the emotion or sensation, or perform the activity with which we may be engaged. For example, as you get dressed in the morning, some attention is needed to choose and to put on your clothes. Yet while you choose and put on your clothes, free attention would also allow you to simply be aware… of your awareness… that is choosing which clothes to wear and is putting on your clothes.

Traditions of inner work sometimes refer to free attention as “mindfulness” or “presence” or “witnessing”. It’s practice is considered by these traditions as the “ultimate” practice for inner realization or breaking free of the “uninterrupted bewilderment” of living as an automaton. Free attention, or presence, can be cultivated by practicing being aware of awareness. There are many fine books that teach about the practice of presence. .

How might presence relate to personal authenticity? It is difficult for me to conceive just how we may become authentic, when the din of reactivity of the automaton’s life deafens our awareness of the source of authenticity which lies within each of us.


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