“To ask ‘What is consciousness?’ does not appear to be unreasonable: yet the question does not seem to be fully answerable in reasonable terms. So along with questions like ‘What is God?’ and ‘What is life?’ we generally rule out consciousness from scientific enquiry.
After long searching for answers in many places, I have come to feel that these compelling questions can be answered, but, unfortunately, not fully within the mode of ‘reason or intellection’. There is no simple way to write down the answer, as we might give a textbook definition. The answers must come personally, experientially.”
This week I want to return again to that subject of utmost, if not paramount importance to humanity, viz. consciousness.
I do this with some trepidation because we know what a difficult task dealing with consciousness is. Julian Jaynes in “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” showed how much of the meaning in language and communication is derived from metaphor. Metaphor extends the compass and effectiveness of our ability to describe things. We can build up a picture of some of the qualities of experiences, concepts and things because they are defined as being “like” something we already know about. He goes on to elaborate why this is ineffective with consciousness. “If understanding a thing is arriving at a familiarising metaphor for it, we can see that there always will be a difficulty in understanding consciousness. For it should be immediately apparent that there is not and cannot be anything in our immediate experience that is like immediate experience itself. Therefore there is a sense in which we shall never be able to understand consciousness in the way that we can understand things we are conscious of.”
Jaynes, waxing a little poetical elaborated with this statement:
“O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind! What ineffable essences these touchless rememberings and unshowable reveries! And the privacy of it all! A secret theatre of speechless monologues and prevenient counsel, an invisible mansion of all moods, musings, and mysteries, an infinite resort of disappointments and discoveries. A whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone, questioning what we will, commanding what we can. A hidden hermitage where we may study out the troubled book of what we have done and yet may do. An introcosm that is more myself than anything I can find in a mirror. This consciousness that is myself of selves, that is everything, and yet nothing at all – what is it?”
Some writers, scientists and those seeking to understand the nature of spirituality suggest that meditation helps us understand consciousness. Andrew Cohen, spiritual teacher and founder of EnlightenNext believes, “The space you discover in meditation is not just a quiet place inside your head – it’s a dimension of reality itself – a dimension of the cosmos. It’s the interior of the cosmos. The interior of the cosmos is not the inside of that mountain – that’s still the exterior dimension. The interior of the cosmos is your experience of consciousness. The exterior of the cosmos is matter. It’s what we see all around us, what we see if we look through a telescope – apparently we can see back to the earliest beginnings of our material universe. But the interior dimension is consciousness. The cosmos is not just ‘out there’; it’s ‘in here’.”
In meditation practice we work directly with our confused mind states. We allow our thoughts to arise but not identify with them. In our mind space we treat everything that arises as just as it is without judgment. We don’t fixate on these passing thoughts but try to let them go and recline into our pure presence. There is no compulsion to prove we are good, successful or worthy. We just are. As a result we come to accept ourselves just as we are. Without judgment we come to understand there is a basic goodness in our simple being.
Somewhere else I used the analogy of muddied water. The cattle come down to drink and they wade a little way into the water. Their hooves stir up the mud on the bottom and as a result the water becomes brown and discoloured. The cattle are like our thoughts that come and go and confuse us and impinge on our sense of being. If we have not cultivated a sense of awareness we invite more and more to enter the stream and as a result the water is perpetually discoloured.
But if we can stop them entering the stream (still our thoughts) then soon the water is clear again. Most times we go to the aid of the cattle. We become emotionally involved in our thoughts. We are sad because we have not lived up to our expectations. We are angry because we have taken offence. We want to clarify the water so we put our hands in it. We struggle and we try to change those things that we can’t accept. We put our hands down and we stir around – and guess what? We now have stirred more mud from the bottom and the water is dirtier than it was before.
Let it go! If we only could come to grips with the universe as it is, unmediated by thought, expectation and judgment we would realise that despite our frenetic perceptions that lead us to believe otherwise – ALL IS WELL.
I have proposed elsewhere that the real “stuff” of the universe is indeed consciousness. I am not alone in having this thought.
Bernard Haisch, astrophysicist and author of The God Theory writes:
“I am proposing, in The God Theory, that ultimately it is consciousness that is the origin of matter, energy, and the laws of nature in this universe and all others that may exist.”
So if consciousness is so fundamental to the cosmos why is it not apparent? When we look up at the sky we can often see little white cumulus clouds scurrying across its broad vista. To the observer it seems that the clouds are moving of their own accord. We sit beside the river and watch the water hurrying by on its way to the sea. We know however that the clouds are being blown along by winds that are invisible to the observer. We also know that it is gravity, again unseen, that inexorably drives the water in the river from its higher reaches towards the sea.
The Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin, believed the universe was going somewhere. He called this evolutionary process “complexification” and believed there was an end point towards which the universe was being inexorably drawn. Teilhard’s primary book, “The Phenomenon of Man”, set forth a sweeping account of the unfolding of the cosmos. He abandoned traditional interpretations of creation in the Book of Genesis in favor of a less strict interpretation. He called the end point, the Omega Point which when attained would result in the Unity of all Consciousness. To all intent and purpose, that end point was equivalent to God.
Many modern writers in the field of evolution and science (including Robert Wright and Carter Phipps) have adopted a similar point of view. They believe that evolution is going somewhere. They believe that our evolutionary progress is not random and undirected. They propose that our physical evolution, our cultural evolution and our spiritual evolution has a determined trajectory. They propose that the platform for evolution is consciousness.
Now these are difficult and complex issues. In an increasingly secular society, our interest have moved from a faith in God in a traditional sense towards what we believe is the nature of consciousness and its impact on evolution. Because of the context I outlined above, and considering our limited ability to understand the phenomenon of consciousness, I suspect that what we believe in this difficult realm will amount to an act of faith as well.
But let us come back to the issue of meditation. Some traditions and spiritual teachers talk about layers of consciousness or structures of consciousness. Probably, in truth, “consciousness” is clumsy word for what we experience in this seemingly internal world. What I am referring to here has been variously called “pure consciousness” which is the experience of awareness itself. It has been called “consciousness without an object” or primordial consciousness”. It seems to me to be analogous with what the Christian existentialist philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich called the “ground of being”.
So when in meditation I have stopped my thoughts and attained this “consciousness without an object” it seems to me I am experiencing what is common to us all and available to us all. Indeed it is here I am sure we are all One. In this act I have put my feet into the river of consciousness which underlies the cosmos