This book is about the problem of consciousness and how the practice of Zen Buddhism as experienced by Dr. Blackmore relates to that problem. She is a UK-based psychologist and author of, most notably, The Meme Machine (1999) in which she lends considerable support to Richard Dawkins' notion of the meme as a Darwinian mechanism of culture.
This is a more personal book. It's a bit self-indulgent as Blackmore takes us to her garden and her meditation shed and back through her Zen retreat experiences in a kind of experiential way without really coming to any more than a series of purely personal insights. The book also suffers from a failure to clearly define "consciousness." Perhaps Blackmore has defined consciousness so many times before and has grown weary of doing so again, or perhaps she thinks we all know what consciousness means more or less. Or, more likely, she believes that the meaning of consciousness will emerge through a reading of this book, the idea being that by asking these ten Zen questions one will be lead to an understanding of consciousness--or at least to an understanding of why consciousness is such a conundrum.
Blackmore graciously lets her Zen master, John Crook, have the last word in the form of a letter to her after he read a draft copy of her book. His response comes under the heading of what I like to call "sometimes it is best to just quote them."
The Zen questions themselves, e.g., "Am I conscious now?"; "Who is asking the question?"; "How does thought arise?" etc., become Zen koans as Blackmore grapples with them. At one point when considering questions about the mind "abiding in tranquility" on the one hand and "moving in thought" on the other, Professor Blackmore observes, "The only point of these questions is to lure you into tranquility. The answers don't matter." (p. 86)
I believe this is correct and at any rate it is the same understanding that I came to many years ago in regard to Zen koans. The fact that Blackmore understands this demonstrates to me at least that she really does have some Zen.
As for whether John Crook has as much Zen is to my mind more in doubt. He writes that he found Blackmore's section on free-will "rather tedious." I found it exactly the opposite, instead very much to the point. What I found tedious were what seemed to be the atmosphere and regimen at Crook's Zen retreats. His apparent dismissal of Blackmore's understanding of consciousness with "What about enlightenment? Keep going!" (p. 173) I found egotistical. Furthermore, Crook's statement that "all this intellection is Not It" (p. 172) seemed to be another easy dismissal of Blackmore's work. The fact that he found all the ink she gave to her experiences at his various retreats "heart-warming, precise and truthful" (p. 167) probably gives us an insight into his primary concern.
I will give Crook credit for writing "I suspect the word ["consciousness"] needs deconstructing philosophically" because this really points to the problem with most books on consciousness, namely that the word is not adequately defined.
As the term is generally used, consciousness has three aspects:
One: awareness of the world (including awareness of our self and our processes, that is, self-awareness).
Two: self-identity. Notice that awareness of self is different from this identification with self.
Three: experience or sensation, the feelings we get when we experience the world. This is sometimes called "phenomenal consciousness." An example would be the subjective experience of the color red, or the taste of a strawberry.
The first aspect of consciousness, awareness, including self-awareness, is something that all (or nearly all) living things have. The range of awareness of course is large. A bacterium has awareness of the texture or feel of certain surfaces, an awareness of the molecules of certain substances in the air and perhaps heat as opposed to cold, and so on. It has a sense of self and not self to some primitive extent--I presume since it doesn't eat itself. Actually a bacterium is powerfully aware compared to a rock.
A primate has an awareness of so much that I won't attempt to reiterate.
The second aspect of consciousness, self-identity, is a psychological trick of the evolutionary process that works toward self-preservation.
The third aspect of consciousness, feelings or sensation, is what is most mysterious (and trivial, by the way, compared to the other two) and is what has had philosophers in a tizzy since time immemorial. Quite simply there is no way that such subjective experiences can ever become objective. The experience of the red that I see may or may not be the same as the experience you have; and there is no way that we can say for sure whether our experiences are the same or different. (from my book, The World Is Not as We Think It Is (2011) p. 82)
Failure to identify which aspect of consciousness one is considering at any given time leads to confusion. Blackmore is able at times to dispel this confusion by being specific about which aspect of consciousness she is talking about. For example on page 164 she refers separately to "awareness" and "self-awareness." Would that she were more circumspect throughout!
The problem of Cartesian dualism resulting in the ghost of a homunculus inside our heads doesn't arise if we ask, as Blackmore does, "Am I conscious now?" meaning "Am I aware of what is going on around me?" which is what she often seems to mean. Nor does it arise if she is asking, "Am I aware of what I am feeling?" However it arises massively when she asks who it is that is asking these questions!
Despite these misgivings there is a lot to admire in this book: Blackmore's grit and determination, her fairness, her often vivid prose, and her considerable knowledge of the subject. I also like the book because I tend to agree with her conclusions, most notably that free will is an illusion and that there is no continually existing self. I found her idea that "There is no now," (page 162) compelling but wonder if one could say that there is only the eternal now and nothing else and be saying much the same thing.