Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim
The Incalculable Value of Identifying Context To Supply Relative Meanings & Witness Ego-Mind as Meaning-Maker To Reveal the Ultimate Context of Self-Awareness
For me context is the key-from that comes the understanding of everything.
All science is experiential; but all experience must be related back to and derives its validity from the conditions and context of consciousness in which it arises, i.e., the totality of our nature.
Context, that is, being conscious of the environment, background and whole situation as relevant or counting to understanding a particular event, creation or personality, is tricky stuff. Context has every appearance of a magician’s misdirection or sleigh of hand and, at the same time, the savvy seasoned professional or sage who truly understands and inhabits being, and in being aware of Awareness itself deftly acts in accord with what is most fitting. Which is which is to unveil clarity. It is proposed that all meaning inherently depends and is contingent upon context. Also it is suggested that the overwhelming human experience points to the fictive ego-mind, the false identity of who we think we are, in making up all the meaning for its own purposes, mainly fear-mongering to avoid loss / pain and ensure survival as it interprets this, and to maximize ego desires of security, money, sex, power, pleasure, fame and pride.
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A pivotal distinction comes down to how one engages another function of ego-ego as tool, that is, the working mind with all its abilities, skill sets, talents, intelligences and genius- to survive, adapt and thrive in engaging and effectively addressing the necessities and demands of living in the impermanent phenomenal world. This key crossroads for deep investigation is whether one is aware or unaware of the ego-mind as false self or identity and its conditioned lenses in viewing all one beholds. What lenses are being looked through? Where is perception coming from? Who perceives? It is likely that within these core questions lay their answers, along with a deepening appreciation of context itself.
Three core structures can serve as a practical trellis to engage in an exploration of context:
- Look through the distorted past conditioning lenses of the imaginary ego-mind as a false self which, when one is unaware or asleep, creates an unconscious context of life driven by ego desires;
- Awaken sufficiently to inhabit this present moment and begin to see the various contexts in the relative world for just what each is and, in this realistic understanding, make your apparent choices;
- Awaken deeply in presence and witness the ego-mind as a false self, surrender all thoughts and perceptions as not real to reveal what is reality and the True Self, and abide in a context of what is real-aware of awareness itself, a pure perception of who you truly are in unconditioned timeless being.
Each structure yields results. The first structure’s unconscious operation driven by ignorance and ego desires often produces defeating, destructive outcomes. The second structure gives an opportunity to make apparent choices to realistically adapt in an unpredictable relative world. The third structure’s pure perception naturally outgrows ego in being aware of Awareness to reveal what is real and the True Self.
Is meaning found purely in context? Here begins an investigation of the first and second structure. Each example begins with the first structure of being unaware or unconscious of the ego-mind and offers a shift to the second structure of having developed some awareness of the present moment and seeing the various realistic contexts the relative world presents. Take two brief illustrations in the everyday relative world to give a taste of how crucial context in the relative world can be. First, consider dating someone attractive enough to be with or date, yet not to be committed to. See this in the context of numerous possible mates, and see this in the context of they’re being the last man or woman on earth. It changes everything. Next take the example of how the man looking for the perfect woman feels in going from candidate to candidate. When he finally finds his perfect woman, he is wildly elated, until he discovers that she is looking for the perfect man, and it turns out not to be him. The shift in context transforms everything instantly. German existential philosopher Heidegger knew the importance of context in reputedly saying that no one could honestly understand a hammer without an understanding of nails, wood and the human necessity for shelter. What would a hammer mean outside of this context?
Other illustrations deepen impression. Here is another charming story that pokes fun at the foibles of presuming one knows the context of someone else’s perception:
One day a young boy of eight approached his father and asked, “What is sex, dad?”
The boy’s father, somewhat unprepared for this parental rite of passage, sat his son down and went through a simplified explanation of the so-called hydraulics of engaging in sexual intercourse.
The somewhat mystified boy responded, “I don’t know much about all you just said. I’m just talking about how to answer the question ‘Sex?’ on this application to join the karate class.”
Another riddle illustrates how context is critical for clarity of understanding: A man is coming home. The man is afraid of the man in the mask. What’s going on? [Please pause and consider this situation before continuing.] Ask as many questions that can be answered “Yes” or “No” as one wishes. One might become exasperated…. Stop, don’t read on…. Got it?
If not, think outside the box. Consider the context of sports, specifically baseball. Ideas? Actually a base runner is charging the plate and is afraid of being tagged out by the catcher wearing a mask.
Another classic insight puzzle shows how assumptions can powerfully influence one’s understanding of context: A man and his son are in a serious automobile accident. The father is killed.
The son is rushed to the emergency room (ER). At the ER, the attending doctor looks at the child and gasps, “This child is my son!” Who is the doctor? [Again consider this situation before proceeding].
Here is a hint: are all doctors men? Assumptions can cloud seeing the actual context… The doctor is the boy’s mother.
Possibly the most poignant examples illustrate the shift in context from unaware unknowing to aware unknowing to aware knowing. Recently a friend from years ago phoned and this one joked with him until picking up his serious tone. Now in aware unknowing, he shared his present diagnosis of prostate cancer and an immanent operation. In aware knowing, this being’s tone shifted to offering caring, acceptance and compassion. Another illustration comes from author Stephen R. Covey (1989) who related a memorable incident on the New York subway. A man boarded with his screaming, unruly children, apparently upsetting Covey’s peace. With the father seeming to do nothing, Covey became irritated over his not taking responsibility for his children. When he could bear it no longer, he confronted the man about taking greater control of his children. The oblivious man acknowledged the situation and stated that they had just come from the hospital and his wife had died an hour earlier. Suddenly Covey saw his unaware unknowing and shifted to being aware of his unknowing. As Covey felt compassion in aware knowing, he offered to help. Indeed, the context had very quickly changed.
Delineating clarity regarding context can be essential to survival and flourishing in the relative world through an understanding of abstract matters and to discern what is accurate about a person or a situation. Context serves us in choosing what thoughts, attitude and actions to give attention to in any given circumstance. One who values individual context (e.g., one’s physiology, age, mood-feeling state, types of intelligences and individual character) can also value content (e.g., historical time, economic production, cultural mores, centers of power and technological expertise). Unless one understands the influence of environments upon people, there is little safety, trust or effectiveness when engaging in life activities. For example, learning disconnected from context can be seen when techniques are taught without a context of knowledge or experience in a specific field, whether it is auto mechanics, hypnotherapy, law enforcement, counseling, dieting or taking medications.
One illustration of a crucial context in the outer world is awareness of a person’s character. Who hasn’t had the shock of finding out that someone you thought was honest and of good character, was otherwise? Of course, you also may be pleasantly surprised to find out just how competent and good-hearted some people are in demonstrating fine character. Levels of trustworthiness, education, intelligence, talent, and awareness are important contexts that, once revealed, become transparently obvious. Reading character correctly is a safeguard for choosing both a career and a partner you can love.
What about the context of the listener?! The listener’s presence, receptivity, background experience, values, and skill level, are likely predictors of actions. What about the context of a person’s readiness, receptivity, and motivation? Some folks claim they can save you time, money and aggravation, if you would only listen and do what you are told. The truth is such well-intentioned people couldn’t save anyone fifteen seconds, a single penny, or the slightest benefit. This pattern can change only when you are truly ready, receptive, and able to act in a responsible, competent, and timely way.
Within the second structure lies the opportunity of making highly adaptive, wise apparent choices as well as the danger of making non-adaptive, foolish apparent choices. It is worth mentioning that life inherently brings risks of all kinds, including the possibility that even well thought through, reasonable and astute apparent choices may not working out at times. Optimizing the second structure to work out as well as it can means consciously factoring in one’s vulnerable for being unduly influenced by all the biases, distortions and attachments of the imaginary ego-mind that carries past conditioning, attachments and survival decisions, thus making non-constructive, non-adaptive decisions.
When information about context is sought and found, it is tempting to create causal explanations of how Z derives from Y, and Y derives from X and so on, without in fact knowing anything about such causal links in reality. The problem of induction, or drawing general conclusions from a limited set of specific data, is the possibility of simply getting it incorrect. Induction is open to the hazard of learned ignorance, or believing one knows what just isn’t so, given the invincibility of the ego-mind and the highly random nature of life. Induction is susceptible to making false assumptions, biased interpretations and mistaken conclusions, courtesy of the survival- and agenda-driven ego operating as a separate self.
Jumping to make associative and causal explanations puts you in significant danger of engaging in unconscious contextualizing, that is, dreaming up a context to make sense of anything filtered through the conditioned lenses of the imaginary self. Furthermore, listening and following the fictive ego-mind tends to turn the actual context in the relative world into a story and imbues this narrative with its biased interpretations, beliefs, roles, false identities and added-on meanings. This common scenario is highly vulnerable to not only have one believe the story to be the truth, but to identify and think one is this narrative! To make up theories to impart meaning, explain what is, and predict what will be, is a far cry from practically making sense of life by “standing under” direct empirical experience inside this moment.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of being fully cognizant of the skill to “stand under”, and thus directly experientially understand anything in the relative world. Psychologist Lawrence LeShan (1974) mentions an older sense of the word “understand” that is possibly the critical safeguard to prevent contextualizing. Understanding, as used here, is not the analytical reduction of the thinking mind that breaks down things to figure out how components work together, but is closer to comprehend and perceive something by being apart or participating in it as an organic, complete process transcending all thought and entering a realm of intuitive inner seeing and heartfelt inspiration. This description appears to fit the experience of the artist, entrepreneur, inventor, innovator and mystic, and presence. Aboriginal peoples, artists and mystics recognize alternative ways to “stand under” direct experience as universal timeless Truth. Letting chaos, uncertainty and not knowing simply be is a key to self-organize and usher in creativity. This takes great patience and a tolerance for ambiguity, much like the metaphor of a glass of muddy water being left to sit naturally settles the impure, leaving only clear water.
This ancient sense of understanding to “stand under” shows up in a realized sage’s direct experience of life in this moment, Oneness, and Original Nature. Underscoring Buddha’s right perspective, sage Balsekar reminds us his spiritual teacher Nisargadatta Maharaj repeatedly said, “Understanding is all.” Balsekar (1989) and his protégé Wayne Liquorman (2009) see the final or ultimate understanding as seeing through the illusion of duality and an absence of ego-mind’s false claim to authority and authorship, unveiling one’s impersonal, always here, True Nature or Self.
Additional key safeguards for unconscious contextualizing are developing internal strengths and disciplines in being aware of the conditioning, biases and attachments of the ego-mind, to honestly challenge assumptions and authority figures, check the truth-value of premises, use sound logic in drawing conclusions through critical thinking, and refuse to make associations into causal relationships. Another critical safeguard is admitting how little you truly know-not knowing! Simply acknowledging, “What do I know?” acts as a strong shield from ego-driven false pride and self-righteousness, honor and duty. Noticing whether you are present or not in any moment is a critical supportive tool to transition to progressively inhabit the second structure in being aware and accurate of the relative world’s contexts.
Some key blockages to experiencing a clarity of context are: making assumptions, jumping to premature conclusions, inflexible attachment to the status quo, resistance to shifting sets, paralysis by over-analysis, and not engaging in critical thinking. If loss of context lies at the core of being entranced, then seeing and naming the realistic context in any life circumstance can powerfully propel one into being un-entranced, empowered in being one’s own authority, and awareness of Awareness itself arises.
The appeal of context reaches its zenith in the third structure that engages a more profound sense of presence along with witnessing the ego-mind in action by standing in its blind spot of this present moment, evoking being aware of Awareness itself. No different than a fish that has lived in the environment of water all its life would not be able to recognize water, or someone living their entire life in a desert surrounded by sand would not be able to distinguish sand, so the mind is equally unable to see itself from inside itself. The only fish that could recognize being in water are those who have ever gotten out of water to see it. Just so with the person having spent their life in a desert would need to leave the desert to come back and be able to see and distinguish sand once asked and named. Given the mind is always on, other than in deep dreamless sleep or when knocked out or unconscious, how could anyone ever be able to be outside of it to look at it? Just like we all share a visual blind spot where all visual receptors conglomerate in the optic nerve, so the mind has the blind spot of presence. Inhabit the now and see the ego-mind and all its up to, including its fears and obsessions, attachments and addictions, hopes and dreams, past and future tripping, shenanigans and machinations, false identities and beliefs, roles and stories, and realize none of these concepts can true since you are seeing all of this.
It is in the ultimate context of being aware of Awareness itself that all you are not is seen, dissolved and naturally surrendered, along with a experiential sense of Authentic Self, who you truly are as Consciousness or Awareness itself. Just as a magician, using slight of hand, will direct the audience’s attention away from how the illusion works, so ego misdirects attention from the context of consciousness. The mind distracts one’s attention onto the contents of consciousness -a thousand different amusements, fears, attachments, diversions, worries, and daydreams. Developing the sensitivity to effortlessly redirect attention back to being aware of the context of Awareness itself reveals “what is” and who you truly are in unconditioned timeless presence. The context of Awareness cannot be seen in any images or vision, heard in any words or sounds and is beyond all description, prescription, definition, position and experience. At best the context of Awareness can be pointed at through experiencing a felt sense of Awareness being aware of itself. Pure Awareness is unconditioned, impersonal, unmovable, without viewpoint, judgment and position given it encompasses all possible points of view and is from which everything arises. Awareness itself, being aware of being aware or witnessing, lives purely in aware perception and a felt experience of right now.
In relaxed, present silence innocently ask: What is one’s felt experience right now of Awareness itself (beyond all the contents of awareness)? Some say this Awareness is “just there,” objective, non-biased and non-judgmental. Others say the Awareness itself is aware, conscious, alert, observant, silent, quiet, present and Presence. Some report the felt sense of Awareness itself to be non-involved, detached, not knowing, non-attached, matter-of-fact, okay, neutral and indifferent. Some describe this Awareness as insightful, warm, natural, centered, grounded, spacious, poetic and oceanic. Others describe this Awareness as peaceful, kind, open, all embracing, inviting, welcoming, serenity and abiding in equanimity. Some say this Awareness is calm, relaxed, joyous, interested, curious, humorous, wondrous and enchanting. Some speak of Awareness itself as One with the universe, unity, perfect, complete, whole, nothing to say or do, beyond words and speechless. For others it is being infinite, eternal, timeless, spaceless, causeless, birthless and deathless. It is alive, awake, free, Being itself and “It is.”
Kings II in the Hebrew Bible describes immanent divinity flowing within as “the still small voice” and “the gentle whisper” as one listens through the silence. Is this intuitive, inspirational and quiet voice another sign of Awareness itself? Given Awareness itself is who one truly is, each description of a felt sense of Awareness correctly points to the indescribable, indefinable and ineffable True Self.
The universe is the context that acts like scaffolding holding the energy of Divinity and Truth. Life provides the grist of on-going challenges that come part and parcel with the human experience. True Nature is the germ to be set free from the ego-mind’s grist. In an engaged daily life, practices imbued with spirituality can serve as the mill through which one’s character is shaped, refined and purified. Once one knows where one stands in any situation, only then does the possibility of a direction come into sight. Isn’t clarity amazing? Without clarity, all is aimless, confused, chaotic and without direction; with clarity, all seems purposeful, a vision arises in awareness, and direction is obvious.
The context of Being in the Absolute and Reality is far different than any frame of reference of the ego. When one really looks at ego from outside the ego, that is, in its blind spot of presence, there is amazement in seeing its modus operandi, or just how it operates. This context of witnessing is absolutely invisible looking from inside the ego. What is more remarkable than for a person to get a real glimpse into the inner workings of the ego and find that it doesn’t really exist, except to itself perhaps? How can any concept, whether ego-mind, good or bad, really exist?
Gaining clarity of psychological and spiritual inquiry may illuminate our inquiry. Nondual author Chuck Hillig (2003) makes this distinction. Pay particular attention to “who” has the problem.
Psychological inquiry appears to concern content, and is directed towards solving some problem. Spiritual inquiry seems to be not the same since it concerns context, and it is more directed towards discovering who has the problem. (page 160, italics in original)
So long as we look through the lenses of ourselves-the psychological sense of self or ego-all the contents seeable is maya or illusion, the so-called dream world. Isn’t it precisely the ego-mind as a false sense of self or identity that perceives through the distorted lenses of its own past conditioning, negativity and fears? It might be useful to see Awakening as a shift in occupancy-from a preoccupation with the ego-mind’s contents of consciousness. to the discovery of the True Self’s context of consciousness or being aware of Awareness itself, often developed through presence and witnessing.
Without conscious clarity of a context, can any fact or reference point be meaningful? Yet, does “what is” or reality make any claim of meaning anything? Who would make such a claim? This would seem to be the proverbial horns of the dilemma-if the True Self makes no claim to meaning since it is bereft of the imaginary “I” and ego-mind’s meaning-making judgments, and clarity of context is essential for anything to be meaningful, then is reality bereft of context pointing to no meaning or is there an alternative context appropriate for “what is?”
One way to break this apparent contradiction and deadlock is in observing the contexts of daily living since these continually reveal a growing awareness of environments or fields. Using not knowing as identical with being aware of Awareness itself, modern day sage Adyashanti (2011) forwards the experience of becoming more comfortable inside the space of not knowing, yielding a developing sense of being intimate with yourself and presence. He sees a primary quality of the space of not knowing as it being aware and conscious of itself, and mentions Tibetan Buddhists use of the term “self-luminosity” or self-knowing for this. That is, who we are knows itself as a vast field of being and unknowing. It seems our True Nature is nothing more or less than this expanse of aware unknowing.
Adyashanti is careful to note that practical knowing in the relative world, such as knowing useful information to function in everyday life, like what is your name and where are your keys, is not in any way in opposition to or diminishes the field of not knowing. Blossoming out of the core of our being is another kind of knowing that eclipses the mind’s unending mental stream of thoughts and opinions, one that opens a lightness of knowing that can be called insight, intuitive understanding or inspired thinking, all uncontrollable by will and a pure expression of the unknown. Within this intimacy with oneself, presence and transcending the mind’s preoccupations, wise action can use concepts to point to what transcends them, like spiritual or secular inspired teachers use all the time to inspire their students.
On occasion the term “beginner’s ear” has crossed this one’s path, probably alluding to the use of “beginner’s mind” or “no-mind” in Zen that points to a fresh, available, open and uncluttered mind. Is this just another way to deepen our capacity for surprise and delight, awe and wonder? Beginner’s ear points to a fundamental openness without prejudgment to what is actually said and heard here-and-now and letting all simply be exactly as it is. Greeting one’s self and another with a beginner’s mind and a beginner’s ear is to show a core respect and caring for oneself and the speaker. Science fiction author Robert Heinlein (1961) coined a new verb for beginner’s consciousness: to grok. Heinlein portrayed grokking as a fundamental way of knowing that is holistic, intuitive, direct and immediate. It is the type of rapport you timelessly offer by entering oneness with another’s inner experience. A Zen saying, “hearing with one’s eyes and seeing with one’s ears,” points to unity, wholeness and Being.
Since apparent freedom and choice can only occur within a grounded workable context, to see and appreciating context provides a crucial component for a productive, illuminating life. As we’ve seen, one can shift from the first structure of context in being unconscious of the ego-mind with it’s conditioned biases in decision-making in the relative world, to a second structure of context in being present to some extent, seeing the ego-mind and its distorting lenses, and making informed apparent choices to thrive in the phenomenal world. Then, one can grow into a third structure of context by stepping outside the normal trance of everyday life through presence and witnessing from a meta-perspective, that is, from a bird’s eye-view outside the box of ego. Purely inhabiting the third structure can one experience the ultimate context in being aware of Awareness itself, pointing to our True Self.
Adyashanti. (2011) Falling into grace. Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True, Inc., pp. 141-143, 148.
Balsekar, R. S. (1989) The final truth: A guide to ultimate understanding. Redondo Beach, California: Advaita Press.
Covey, S. R. (1989) The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster, pp. 29-31.
Heinlein, R. A. (1961) Stranger in a Strange Land. New York: Berkley Publishing.
Hillig, C. (2003) Seeds for the Soul. Ojai, California: Black Dot Publications.
LeShan, L. (1974) How to Meditate. New York: Little, Brown and Company, pp. 219-220.
Liquorman, W. (2009) Enlightenment is Not What You Think. Redondo Beach, California: Advaita Press.
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