Transcript for Susan Blackmore on Zen Consciousness


Jim Fleming: Susan Blackmore is a British polymath, a psychologist who's written books on consciousness, memes, and parapsychology, and, as Steve Paulson discovered, she is fascinated by what Zen Buddhism can tell us about the mind. Blackmore says her daily practice of meditation has revealed certain truths that have so far eluded the scientific study of consciousness. 
Susan Fleming: I've been practicing Zen now for more than 30 years. And over the years, my Zen practice began to come together, really, with my intellectual struggles. And it seems to me now that by doing deep meditation and asking difficult questions about consciousness within meditation, one can begin to change in such a way that there does not seem any longer to be this separation between self and other, or mental and physical. 
Steve Paulson: You'll have to explain this. Something about the process of Zen meditation itself led you to these insights?
Blackmore: Yes, yes, I think so. I mean, it's interesting from the Zen point of view, and indeed from the point of view of some other forms of Buddhism and the (Danta Advaita????) and other mystical traditions throughout the ages, there are many examples of non duality. So all of those traditions will say, ultimately, all is one, or you are not separate from the universe. You are the universe. And you know, all this sounds pretty mystical and weird, doesn't it. 
Paulson: Well, I mean, that's easy to say too. If you were just focusing on your conscious experience, if you don't actually care what science, for instance, says about the brain, then sure, that sounds fine, but if you want to actually reconcile the insights of science with that deep understanding of the mind that comes with meditation, and it would seem to be still very problematic. 
Blackmore: It's extremely problematic, but let me give you an example of the way that I think that meditation has helped me to think about it. When I was teaching my consciousness courses I used to get my students to really look into their own consciousness, and the way I did that is every week I gave them a question. And they are supposed to ask this question as many times as they could every day. The first question was, "Am I conscious now?" Are you conscious now? 
Paulson: I think I am. 
Blackmore: Good. Well, we'll come back to that, but very often, if you just go up to somebody, and which I intend to do, just poke them and go, "Hey, are you conscious now?" and they go, "Oh, yes,"  and get this very strange feeling that something has changed because I asked the question, and you can do it to yourself. And you suddenly think, it's almost a bit like waking up. Almost a bit like you've just become conscious because you asked the question. Now, that's a clue to think, "Well, what was happening just before?" It's an oddity, one of many, many oddities about consciousness. Though whenever I asked the question "am I conscious now,"  I always am. But what about when I'm not asking the question. 
Paulson: Another way to phrase this might be, are you truly aware right now of what's going on. You know, are you truly in the moment?When you talk about are you conscious, that's sort of what you mean. 
Blackmore: Exactly, and so you could say from that point of view it's very much like mindfulness. Are you here, fully in the present with what's going on. But my point is, something happens when you ask that question that led me to then ask my students and myself the second question: "Were you conscious a moment ago?" And then, people are not sure because they have this funny feeling that something had changed, or they've become more conscious. So my next question then was, "What was I conscious of a moment ago?" And I found this question absolutely fascinating. I mean, several times when I'd do a retreat, when I'm meditating six or seven hours a day in half hour sessions with two breaks in between, and once I've done an hour or two, I get a really calm, still mind, and then kind of let the question "what was I conscious of a moment ago?" And what I found is that almost always there are lots and lots of things that I could say I might have been conscious of a moment ago. I could do it now. I can sort of think back, it's really weird, I've just remembered, I just scratched my leg, and I would not have remembered that if I hadn't been asking myself this, but obviously there's more obvious things like the sound of the humming of the air conditioning. Oh, and I know I've been sort of noticing visually my hands because I'm waving my hands like anything as I'm talking. But the weird thing is, I can sort of track back these things, and they feel as though I was conscious of them. But each didn't have anything to do it the other. Now, the critical thing here is I don't know really know whether I was conscious of them or not. Were there sort of five or six or ten mes, one for each of these sort of parallel backward threads, or was I divided up, or are none of them me? Well, if I can't answer the question, then nobody can. Because the whole point about consciousness is that it's subjective, and therefore it's tough for me to say. Consciousness is simply an attribution that we make after the fact with our language. 
Paulson: I want to take you back to your Zen practice, and one thing I find curious is when I was reading how you describe it, you say you actually are not a Buddhist yourself. You practice Zen, but you don't call yourself a Buddhist. Why did Zen hit home for you so profoundly?
Blackmore: Well, go back to the 1970s. And imagine me in the end of the hippy era, in all my flowing skirts, and my "far out, man," and listening to The Greatful Dead, and Pink Floyd, and taking interesting drugs, and all of that stuff. And I had an extraordinary out of the body experience, and I was really obsessed with trying to understand the mind. I was studying physiology and psychology at Oxford, and that wasn't giving me…I mean, it was wonderful. I enjoyed it, but it wasn't giving me answers on those kinds of things, and I went searching, and I trained as a witch, and I learned to read terra cots. I did all kinds of stuff, and I became a parapsychologist and looked for paranormal phenomena and never found any. One of the things in that whole mission of (??) stuff, is that I came across a Zen group and started practicing meditation, and all the other things gradually fell by the wayside, through my research as well as through my ordinary life, and the Zen practice was the only thing that survived. And I found it enormously helpful, not just in the kind of intellectual way we are talking about now, but in the whole way of living my life, but the really important thing for me is that when I write about Zen and about meditation and then about what I have found, I want people to be clear that I'm not saying this is what the Buddhists said, or this is what Buddhism says. I'm saying, this is what I think I found through practice that I've been helped through Zen to learn. 
Paulson: And you also say that going back to your first extended Zen retreat, where you sat for hours and hours meditating, that being in the present moment was terrifying. 
Blackmore: Yes. It is really hard in the beginning and easier now, but to sit down and just allow the mind to do its stuff, because you see the most awful things. I mean, that's the beginning of meditation practice. The first retreat I ever went on, which was five days, and many, many hours every day meditating, you know, I saw horrific things. The wall would turn into scenes of torture or rape or, you know, awful things like that, or I'd just be, I'd just suddenly remember something awful that I'd done and feel mortified and wish I could change it, or something that someone's  done to me, and I'd feel so angry, and in meditation you have to sit…well, the kind of meditation I do, you have to learn to sit with all this stuff and let it be. And a lot of it is about letting go and not engaging with stuff, not pushing it away. Just letting it be, and you get to know yourself.
Paulson: So how much do you meditate these days?
Blackmore: Not a lot, but every day. Well, every day I will sit with my husband if we are both at home. So 15 minutes in the morning. Sometimes I might do half an hour. And I go on retreats once or twice a year, when I'll go for a week and do a lot more. So, you know, it varies a lot, but the basis is just that 15 minutes every morning, and I'm sure there are people out there listening and thinking, "You should be doing half an hour a morning." Well, sorry, I've got a very complex, busy life. And my advice to anybody would be, take on something that you can manage, because if you do even a little bit every day for years and years and years, I think that has a lot better effect than trying to do too much and failing. 
Fleming: Susan Blackmore talking with Steve Paulson about her book "Zen and the Art of Consciousness." Want to hear more? You'll find dozens of interviews and transcripts, along with our comic book on consciousness on our website at It's to the Best of our Knowledge. I'm Jim Fleming. This hour, Higher Consciousness is part of our special series Meet Your Mind, a User's Guide to the Science of Consciousness, brought to you by Wisconsin Public Radio.  Our series was produced by Steve Paulson with the help of Anne Strainchamps, Sarah Nicks, Doug Gordon, Veronica Rickard(??), and Charles Monroe-Caine(??).
Our technical director is Carill(??) Owen. Steve Mullen at Walkwest Production wrote the theme music. Thanks to the producers of the film Free the Mind for our audio of the classroom meditation. And special thanks to two of our sponsors from Meet Your Mind. Promega(??) Corporation, providing tools and technologies for research and life science and the Nour(??) Foundation, exploring meaning and commonality of human experience.

Comments for this interview

Much ado (BBoB, 08/18/2013 - 10:58pm)

It is likely that brains are parts of central nervous systems.

It is likely that nervous systems are asynchronous self-modifying state machines with input from variable sensory apparatus.

It is likely that an individual's consciousness is congruent with the series of consecutive states of such a machine.

The??? Advaita (Meryl Steinberg, 08/18/2013 - 4:02pm)

She made a reference to Advaita Vedanta . The transcriber hadn't understood her.