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Meditation as a Bootstrap model

Self-reliance is one of the defining characteristics of what the Buddha taught - being able to learn about yourself, and doing so only using yourself and what you find in your yourself. Help from the outside is of course welcome, whether other people or divine beings, but the primary resource for a Buddhist meditator is him or herself. This article explores this, and particularly how my self-awareness or self-reflection can 'bootstrap' me into a deeper and more perceptive mode of seeing. [Acknowledgements and thanks to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, and to Stefan Beyer who sparked my thinking in this way.]

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'Bootstrap' refers to a self-generating or self-sustaining process. It originated from the phrase 'to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps', meaning that you leverage yourself to success using only yourself and your own resources. It is an increasingly common word, and is used now in many different contexts, a few being: to become successful in business with no outside help; a physical therory of elementary particles (such as the S-matrix, the idea being that instead of needing to assume many sub-atomic particles, you can get to any one by 'bootstrapping' another); and of course you start your computer up by 'booting' it (originally 'bootstrapping' - each layer of software complexity forming itself from the simpler layer prior to it).

I think the word 'bootstrap', and its generic meaning, applies well to what the Buddha taught (meaning what is written in the Pali Canon). I think it applies in general to the Buddha's message, that a person's primary strength and means of seeing more clearly are in themselves. It is also written that a person needs the help of others 'more wise' than themselves, but this is only so that a person has the courage, faith and example to look into themselves and find there what is necessary for genuine self-discovery.

But in this article I apply 'bootstrap' not to the Buddha's message overall, but more specifically to what is written in the Pali Canon about meditation, and the use of self-reflection, or the ability to become aware of one's own awareness.

There are many definitions of what we mean by 'awareness', but I think that one quality that it has above all others is the ability to be aware of itself. This is not a straightforward definition of course - it has something of the circular about it - but it is more than a simple circular definition, it is recursive.

Recursion is used in mathematics and computer programming, and refers to when a function calls itself - not continuously, but until a 'base case' is met. A simple example is 'factorial n', written n!, meaning multiplying the digit 'n' by all digits less than itself once only For example 6! = 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1. If you define the 'base case' as the definition 0! = 1, then the easiest way by far of calculating n! or 'factorial n' when n is large is recursively: factorial n = n x factorial (n-1). In other words, you define factorial n as n multplied by factorial (n-1). But then what is 'factorial (n-1)'? By the recursive definition it is: factorial (n-1) = (n-1) x factorial(n-2). And so you continue, defining each factorial in terms of the factorial of one number less, until evenutally you arrive at the number zero, and since we have defined 0! = 1 as the 'base case', then all the calls ('n' of them) to the 'factorial function' unravel themselves and you are automatically given the answer to the original question: what is 'factorial n'.

I think of 'awareness' in somewhat similar terms; what is more important, I believe the Buddha did too.

I think the first step is to recognise that we can think of our awareness as 'that by which we are aware', our consciousness, the subject of the sentence 'I am aware of that', the 'self' that is aware if you like. But we also sometimes objectify our awareness, make it an object, what we are aware of. We can say things like 'my awareness is foggy' or 'my awareness is clear' or 'my awareness is like a large or infinite screen'; in all these cases we are objectifying our awareness.

An example of this might be a musician, absorbed and transported by her playing a piece of music, and yet a part of her standing aside and judging her own performance, so she can learn and play it even better next time. This, to me, is the prime quality of awareness - that I can be aware of something, and yet at the same time be aware of my being aware! This is the essence of 'self-awareness' or 'self-reflection'.

And the essence of meditation is to use this same process, to be aware of whatever I am aware of (my body, breath, whatever) and at the same time to be aware of what I am doing.

A particularly vivid analogy is given more than once in the Pali Canon. The Buddha talks of a sitting person looking at a person lying down. In fact, from the Pali you can translate the people as being the same person. So I read the Buddha as saying you are lying down, but you can at the same time sit up and be aware of yourself lying down.

But the analogy continues. Having objectified your awareness (the lying down part of you) and become aware of it (the sitting up part of you), you can then 'bootstrap' that, and objectify again your awareness, and then become aware of that. The Buddha says that the sitting man can then stand up, and from the standing position observe himself sitting (and presumably still lying down as well).

The Buddha makes it clear that this is a fundamental process of meditation. When talking about rarefied states of meditation (the 'formless jhanas'), that one is supposed to be absorbed in, the question arises: 'If you are truly absorbed in one of them, how do you progress to the next one?' And the Buddha's answer is this process I am calling self-reflection - however absorbed you are in a meditation state, you can still spare a little bit of awareness to objectify your peaceful and serene state, stand back from it if you will, and in so doing bootstrap yourself to the next state.

Perhaps this could be one intepretation of anatta - that Buddhist concept that causes much discussion, that there is no constant 'self'. If you take the 'self' to be the source of awareness, meaning the centre of consciousness looking 'out', then you can always objectify it and get into another 'self' looking at the previous 'self'.

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