A Few Thoughts on Consciousness

“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.”


Robert Ornstein


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

4 Replies to “A Few Thoughts on Consciousness”

  1. Very good Ted…..Shakespeare has a say in this topic of course when Hamlet muses his “To be or not to be” Soliloquy……a topic that has troubled us from the very dawn of our existence…something outside our nature (super-natural) yet at the same time embedded deep within our core (soul)… Great stuff Ted….

  2. I enjoyed this post Ted, and respect where your feet have come to rest. However, I am not really ready for the journey yet.

    I’m a bit of a Philistine (not to ‘dis’ the Philistines of ancient times, although I am not sure I can avoide that and still use the label). I felt sorry for poor Bertrand Russell who told me in Philosophy 101 that he struggled to accept that when he was grabbing a table he was actually grabbing a table; or that he could not be confident that the sun would be rising tomorrow, on the commonly held and obviously flawed basis that it had risen every other day since beyond human recalling.

    I guess I’m of the Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’ school. Old school, and possibly flawed, but certainly very useful so far. 🙂


    1. This is not easy stuff to grasp Geoff. The good Dr Phil always tells me that Descartes was mistaken. He proclaimed “cogito ergo sum” which is translated as “I think therefore I am.” But he would have advanced the progress of humanity more if he hed but realised, “Because I am aware of my thoughts I must be more than my thoughts”. Descartes laid out the platform for dualism, distinguishing between mind and body. But if you are able to contemplate your thoughts this implies that at your essence you are more than your thoughts. The Eastern traditions postulate that what is the essential “you” is your theatre of mind, that capacity you have to be aware of your mind and your thoughts. They call this “The Witness”.As I have tried to explain in my essay when you meditate and cease your thoughts you are in the presence of the pure “Witness” which I have explained as the essential experience of awareness.

      The “witness” so-called is the manifestation of your true self. This capacity is excluded from the simple dualistic model of Descartes.

      It is easy to see we are not our bodies. Our bodies change over our lifetime but the essential “I” remains the same. Similarly we are not our minds. The manifestation of our minds which we are aware of are our thoughts. Our thoughts come and go but the essential “I” remains the same. It is then obvious that what we relate our “I”ness to is the theatre of mind, our capacity to observe the mind. Therefore their is another dimension beyond the simplistic vision of Descartes with which our self identifies and that is the “Witness”.

  3. The scientific method is useless here. If consciousness is the origin of matter, no one can isolate and analyse it because to do so would be to cut it into pieces leaving us where we started. Demonstrable experiments are therefore impossible but it does seem that through personal experiments it may be possible to sneak up on consciousness. I have this feeling occasionally in meditation; each thought is a separation of consciousness. By eliminating each thought by focussing my mind on one thought or thing and then also unconsciously letting that one thought go, I, for an instant have nothing, not even myself. It is a liberating but very fleeting perception because to be aware of it, is to destroy it. I say it is liberating because for an instant I don’t exist and it is OK. That probably makes no sense to anyone but me but that is the best I can do to describe it. I should add this is a very rare experience for me and the feeling of liberation fades over time and I soon fall back into my old fearful ways.

    It is an experiment that takes patience, practice and time and the results can never be shared with anyone. In a world where we are all very busy promoting ourselves it is not surprising that there is little interest in such experiments. Give it a go, what have you got to lose. Christians, Muslims, Jews Budhists and others have been doing it for generations without even knowing it.

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