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Western Subjectivism and Eastern Formlessness

A revisiting of the Western tradition is important for understanding how it has grappled with perspectives on mind and consciousness that are fundamentally related to thought processes. It has, so to speak, been blinded by thought as part of what can be termed “Western subjectivism.” Much has been written about subjectivism in philosophy (Farber 1968; Lewis 1913; Mansbach 2002; Murphy 1980; Beiser 2002)—a notoriously difficult-to-define notion and one that has been understood in many different ways. A common way of understanding subjectivism is in terms of idealism. The idealist subjectivist is often seen as seeking to understand reality in terms of his or her own cognitive funding—reality is seen as something sourced or grounded in the mind. The interpretation of subjectivism here starts with this basic understanding of subjectivism, but we then examine subjectivism as a distinctly Western phenomenon through the lens of meditative strands of Eastern philosophy.

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017 237

A. Hedman, Consciousness from a Broad Perspective, Studies in Neuroscience,

Consciousness and Spirituality 6, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-52975-2_10

We can see Western subjectivism as being primarily about thought and secondarily about ontology, and can characterize Western subjectivism as being based on the assumption that we exist primarily as thinking subjects. Western subjectivism is foreign to the idea that we exist primarily as inseparable from a greater whole, which we call the universe, and it is incompatible with the idea that our most fundamental existence may be as pure consciousness without thought. These two latter assumptions have long been part of many philosophically founded Eastern meditative traditions. The Eastern meditative traditions have seen consciousness without thought as allowing immediate access to reality in ways that thought cannot. The reader familiar with Eastern meditative traditions will recognize terms that have been used to label experiences of consciousness without thought, such as: “emptiness,” “nothingness,” and “the formless” (the term I will use most frequently here). But all labels and all articulation ultimately fail to do justice to what is represented by these labels. That is why these traditions involve meditative, experiential components and cannot be understood without them. We may think of such components as involving “being” in contrast to “doing,” where doing includes thought processes (mental actions) as well as physical doing. In the West, this way of looking at the formless is often described as “mindful being” or “mindfulness.” I will use the notion of the formless throughout the text roughly as a synonym for consciousness, without thought, as a pure field of experience.

I will use the expression “Eastern meditative traditions” to refer to those traditions of philosophy and spirituality that have roots in India roughly around 3000 BC and continue through the Eastern world, mainly through Hinduism and Buddhism. Those traditions emerged with an early interest in consciousness. There was, within them, no clear separation between mind and world. It was assumed from the very beginning that what was later called a dualist world view in the West was founded on illusion. These traditions came to the insight that the universe is conscious. To Westerners, it may seem like an oddity to even mention a conscious universe but, from a meditative Eastern point of view, there is nothing odd about saying that the universe is conscious, because you and I are conscious and we are part of the universe. The same goes for other conscious animals in our universe. We are the conscious universe observing itself.

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