Hubert Benoit
Zen and the Psychology of Transformation
The Supreme Doctrine

Chapter 9

THE ZEN UNCONSCIOUS

The psychological consciousness of the natural man contains perpetually two different layers of perception; it pays attention to two different orders of things. The natural man's attention is continually held on two planes of perception; it is divided between these two planes. It is a mistake to suppose that one can only pay attention to one thing at a time; one continually pays attention to two things at a time; but, as we are about to see, in two different ways.

On the first plane of perception the attention is held by particular aspects of the outside world, effectively present or rendered present by the imaginative film. On this plane I live, in duration, my particular dispute, qualitatively changing all the time, with the Not-Self.

On the other plane of perception my attention is held by the situation, at the moment, of the hearing of my profound general lawsuit between 'to be' and 'not to be'. This action is always the same, so this plane of perception is qualitatively entirely monotonous. If, on this plane, things change unceasingly also, it is quantitatively. My state therein is more or less 'white' (impression of 'being') or 'black' (impression of 'not being'). Apart from these fluctuations between the white and the black there occur quantitative fluctuations between calm and agitation; we will return later to these two kinds of fluctuation.

It is interesting to study the relations which exist between these two planes. The plane of my particular perceptions, or surface plane, depends (in so far as my imagination influences thereon my perception of the outside world or re-creates on it aspects of the outside world) on the plane of my profound general perception, that is to say, on my state. A white state peoples my imaginative film with positive forms, a black state peoples it with negative forms. An agitated state accelerates my imaginative film, a calm state slows it down. Apart from that this surface plane evidently depends also on outside circumstances.

The profound plane, that is to say, my state, depends in part on the forms present on the surface plane. The affirming or negating events that I perceive there influence my state; and the forms imagined under the influence of my state react on this state in a positive and negative vicious circle. But my state depends also on my physiological coenaesthesis;1 insomnia, indigestion, blacken it; alcohol, opium, whiten it.

[1. The word 'coenaesthesis' indicates the total inner perception that we have of our organism. Beside the five senses by means of which we perceive the outside world our coenaesthesis is a kind of sixth sense by means of which our organism perceives itself in its ensemble.]

In short I am unceasingly occupied by two things at the same time; I am occupied at once by my existence in the outside world and in calculating inwardly the chances of a favourable or unfavourable verdict in the general action concerning my being and my nullity. My attention is divided between these two occupations; this explains why the neurotic patient often presents disturbance of superficial mental concentration and disturbance of perception of the outside world. So great a part of his attention is taken up in calculating the verdict of his action, so little is left to him for his contacts with the outside world, real or imagined, that he receives an impression of the unreality of the outside world and of the impossibility of managing his surface mentality.

My state, white or black, agitated or calm is non-formal. Light shows up forms but it is itself without form. Agitation is likewise without form; forms are more or less in a state of agitation, but agitation itself is without form. Therefore all perception of the profound plane is without form. On the contrary perception on the surface plane is formal. Therefore perception on the surface plane is evident to me, while my perception of my state is latent. I can only become conscious of it as of a coenaesthesis more or less agreeable or disagreeable, the agreeable corresponding with the white and the disagreeable with the black.

It is important that I distinguish between these two consciousnesses which correspond with the two planes which divide my attention, and that I indicate them by different names. I will call my surface consciousness 'objectal consciousness' and my profound consciousness 'subjectal consciousness'. These two consciousnesses are the two unconciliated parts between which is torn in pieces my psychological consciousness in my dualistic egotistical condition in which I perceive everything from the angle of the opposition subject-object. I say 'subjectal' and 'objectal' and not 'subjective' and 'objective' because these two latter words should correspond with the two conciliated aspects of the consciousness of the man who has attained Realisation.

My objectal consciousness is evident, or manifest, my subjectal consciousness latent. I debate my outward problems knowing that I am debating them; I debate my profound inward problem without being aware of it. The fact is that in these two consciousnesses the manner in which my attention is held differs. I am in agreement with the capture of my attention by outward forms, I lend myself to it, I am in favour of it; on the contrary I am against the capture of my attention by my inner state; I can say that I cause my attention to be captured in my objectal consciousness and that it is captured in spite of me in my subjectal consciousness. I am oriented in a centrifugal manner, towards the outside; it is outwards that I look; and I turn my back, on the contrary, on my state. The part of my attention which is captured by my subjectal consciousness is stolen from me from behind; the part of my attention which is captured in my objectal consciousness I myself offer, in front of me, to the outside world of form. I am to be compared with a man sitting in a cinema, with a screen in front of him and the projector behind; I look at the forms on the screen and I turn my back on the projector, on my state which projects onto the screen form and colour.

My subjectal consciousness, this consciousness unknown to classical psychology, is the latent face of my psychological consciousness that is torn apart in duality. This thought which works unceasingly, monotonously, on the dispute between my being and my nullity, is, in a sense, unconscious. But the unconscious in question here is not the fundamental Unconscious of Zen; it represents the very first apparition of dualism, immediately after the fundamental Unconscious has become conscious of itself; it is the very first dualistic manifestation of the fundamental Unconscious. One does not know whether one ought to call it unconscious or conscious since it is exactly at the border-line between the fundamental Unconscious and consciousness. One sees it to be unconscious if one looks at it from the point of view of consciousness (the Freudian point of view); one sees it to be subjectal consciousness if one looks at it from the point of view of the fundamental Unconscious. It is from this point of view of the fundamental Unconscious that the Zen master looks at it when he deplores, in the natural man, the misdeeds of the dualistic psychological consciousness. The Zen master says to us: 'You are unhappy because you are established, in fact, in consciousness and not in the Unconscious'; and he sees the Freudian unconscious not indeed as a real unconscious but as the deepest and most obscure source of the discoursive consciousness, that is to say as the first mode of dualistic consciousness.

Sharing this Zen point of view we ought to regard this subjectal consciousness as our latent consciousness and not as the Unconscious. Although latent it is no less active for that, and for our misfortune. The more active it is, that is to say the more we debate our illusory problem being-nullity, and the more we are distressed by doubt concerning our being, the more we are deprived of the joyous original light, and the more our attention is captured by the obscure depths. When a very great amount of our attention is thus captured there only remains a little for our adaptation to the outside world; it is what has been called 'lowering of the psychological tension', with impossibility of concentration and all the symptoms of psychasthenia.

Since my subjectal consciousness is latent, since it is a kind of unconscious consciousness, one can ask oneself by what means we have knowledge of it and how we can speak of it. It is the observation of my surface consciousness, and the need that I experience of understanding why it functions as it functions, which lead me little by little to understand, by mediate reasoning, the existence and the nature of this profound subjectal consciousness in which is debated the action between my being and my nullity. The immediate inner intuition of my profound state does not reveal to me forms within it but gives me information concerning its luminosity (from white to black, from light to dark) and concerning its dynamism (from calm to agitation). This intuitive perception is interesting, for it allows me to observe the relations which exist between my inner state and my comportment, sentiments and actions. Just as the meaning of a dream is found in its latent content and not in its manifest content, so the meaning of my life, this other dream, is to be found in my latent consciousness, subjectal, and not in my manifest consciousness, objectal. It is the thought of my latent consciousness which determines my comportment and my manifest consciousness.

In my latent consciousness in which is tried the action concerning my being and my nullity, I desire to be acquitted, I desire to feel myself as being, and I am terrified of my nullity. Let us see how the two phenomenal dualisms of my being—'light-darkness' and 'agitation-immobility'—are connected with this fundamental dualism being-nullity. Everything happens in me as though light were identified with being and darkness with nullity, and as though agitation were identified with being and immobility with nullity. That is to say my innate partiality for being is expressed by a partiality for a 'luminous state, in motion'. But it is possible to specify still further my partiality; the particular modalities of life and of my personal inner structure are not always such that I can have at the same time light and agitation; I am obliged sometimes to choose between the two; I then perceive, by my comportment, that I still prefer agitation to light. I can say, still more accurately and speaking now in the negative mode, that, if my deep fear is fear of darkness and of immobility, my fear of immobility is greater than my fear of darkness; I encounter more strongly the terrifying impression of not 'being' in the absence of movement of my subjectal consciousness than in its character as black. (Thus a child will prefer to see his mother scold him than not pay attention to him at all; he would prefer that she paid attention to him by kissing him; but if he fails to obtain that he will prefer her scolding to her neglect. So also, the masochist, if his greatest preference tends, as that of every man, towards vibrant joy, likes better, since he has not succeeded in obtaining this vibrant joy, to vibrate by suffering rather than not to vibrate at all.) Everything happens, then, as though I feared more than anything the immobility of my deep state, and secondarily the darkness of this state; as if I feared more than anything not to feel myself living (and so, vibrating, movement being the essential criterion of life), and secondarily not to feel myself joyous. Man generally pretends to desire happiness; this pretention corresponds with the sound intuition that the deep state of the man who has attained Realisation will be luminous and motionless. But in fact this pretention does not accord with the natural man's comportment; the natural man does not live for happiness, he does not tend to obtain for himself a luminous and motionless state; he tends to obtain for himself a state that is, above all, vibrant and, secondarily, luminous.

It is not surprising that the natural man does not attain happiness, since he does not tend towards it. And the fact that his preference for agitation is stronger than his preference for light explains why his joys are so precarious; when he is joyous he attaches more value to the agitation by means of which he strives for still more joy than he attaches to his joy itself. This is expressed by an unlimited demand for joy which always ends by his stumbling on the limits of the temporal plane and by bringing about the collapse of the joy. (Consider a man who has a great piece of luck; at once he wishes to celebrate it and to add as much gratification as possible to his original gratification.)

Of the two distinct preferences experienced by the natural man in connexion with his states, the secondary preference for the light is sound; but his primordial preference for agitation is erroneous, and it is the cause of all his miseries. It is because he desires unceasingly to feel his life vibrating in him, that is to say, in the egotistical situation in which he still is, to feel himself affirmed as distinct, that he remains plunged in the miseries of dualism and its lacerating contradictions.

Only comprehension can deliver man from this absurd preference; comprehension reveals to him that this inner immobility of which he is terrified not only is not to be feared but represents salvation. Indeed, in the egotistical situation in which he is at present, he cannot have at the same time light and immobility; if he brings himself, being initiated, to prefer in fact, that is to say to seek, immobility, he will have darkness at the same time; the 'Night' of Saint John of the Cross, if it is motionless is at the same time dark. But this night is very bearable when I am established in this immobility of which I am no longer afraid, in which on the contrary I put my hopes.

This inner task does not consist in 'doing' anything new whatsoever; it consists only, because one has understood, in spontaneously remembering the absurdity of the hopes that we place mechanically, naturally, in our inner agitation, and of the harmful absurdity of this agitation. Each time that I conceive this revealing non-natural thought my agitation ceases more or less completely. Abandoning my pretension of settling my action between being and nullity I confide myself to my Principle so that it may scatter the phantoms of this absurd action. I do nothing further, I leave everything to my invisible Principle, in which I believe without seeing it. I have only, for my part, to maintain and to increase my understanding by honest intellectual work, so that the spontaneous effects of this understanding may grow richer as well.

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