If you read Scientific American each month like I do, then you'll know that consciousness is a hot topic these days. You may know this anyway. And the impressive reference is not merely an admittedly blatant attempt to advertise my well-readedness, I promise.
Type the word consciousness on Amazon and you can scroll through 20 pages of books devoted to the subject, if tangentially. Tomes with such titles as Consciousness Beyond the Body, and Understanding Consciousness. Also: Origins of Consciousness, Consciousness and the Brain, Consciousness Explained. The Untethered Soul purportedly treats our hot topic, though not in so many words. If you have a Kindle as I do, and like reading for free, as everyone does (judging from how few people buy my books), you may enjoy The Inner Consciousness: How to Awaken and Direct It. It is by a Swami, if you're into that sort of thing.
The Atlantic did a recent article on consciousness. Consciousness as a function of evolution; sadly this connection, while seemingly ingenious, ties the perplexing phenomenon to the mental process of neurons firing in the cerebrum. And limiting awareness to the brain is, well, much too limiting. Not to be outdone, The Guardian did a piece which they called: "Why can't the world's greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?" Why indeed. Because the ancient mystics solved it, some of whom were themselves swamis. Perhaps in complicated times - and we now know more about the brain than ever before, having mapped almost every region and identified areas covering not just movement and sensation but movements and sensations in all the areas of the body - perhaps in such scientifically advanced times we have lost the forest for the trees. Let's have a look at the space between the trees. Because leaves are so pretty! And they say that on a single leaf, however infinitesimal, in its tendrils and lines however faintly drawn, can be read a detailed map of the entire forest. Imagine! Actually I'm not really sure anyone says that. I just made it up to see if you're still paying attention.
Do you need to pay attention? Or can we let scientists do all the work? Because if you believe websites such as livescience.com, then experts are actually closing in on a theory of consciousness. But I don't believe 'em. Neither does Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science (and member of Scientific American's advisory board, dedicated readers of this periodical will gladly note). Koch is not convinced, not yet at least. He tells it like this: "Some philosophers...pontificate about the impossibility of ever understanding the true nature of consciousness, of subjectivity. Yet there is little rationale for buying into such defeatist talk and every reason to look forward to the day, not that far off, when science will come to a naturalized, quantitative and predictive understanding of consciousness and its place in the universe."
Read Koch's words again. Do you notice anything problematic? Hint: it has to do with semantics. And semantics is central to the problem of understanding consciousness and developing a theory. Define your terms, people! Koch equates consciousness with subjectivity. Subjectivity. As in you see the world through the prism of your perception, and I see it through mine, and they are different. Our perceptions. Does that mean that our consciousness differs? Is the bulb that lights your lamp any different from the bulb that lights mine just because your shade is pink and mine is purple? I'm not so sure. Subjectivity is of course the opposite of objectivity, or seeing things as they truly are. Leaving alone whether seeing reality as it is rather than as you wish or fear it to be is even possible. (I think it is.) Anyway, while your perception of the world and your place in it may be related to consciousness, an aspect of consciousness, your individuality is not everything, sorry to break it to ya.
What were we talking about. Oh yes, semantics. And Koch is not the only one to make this mistake. In the aforementioned Live Science article, Tanya Lewis writes: "Studying the mind was once the province of philosophers, some of whom still believe the subject is inherently unknowable."
Since when is consciousness synonymous with the mind? When we think of the mind we think of thoughts, and we think of the brain. Right? Limiting, right? So what do you think of when you think of consciousness? Merriam-Webster offers a multi-pronged definition for consciousness that includes "the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself; the state or fact of being conscious of an external object, state, or fact; awareness of/concern for some social or political cause. Mind. The upper level of mental life of which the person is aware as contrasted with unconscious processes. The normal state of conscious life."
All of these definitions miss the mark we are trying to hit. But "the totality of conscious states of an individual" is closer. Borrowing from our swami, we can dissect the word into its Latin origins (scio means to know, con means together) and say that consciousness means to know together. It means subject-object duality. You see an object, say that red car that just ran the stoplight, and you are aware of yourself seeing the car. You are subject. The car is object. Subject and object cannot exist without each other. Even in your own conscious mind this takes place. You think and you know you are thinking.
But there is a deeper meaning to consciousness, transcending mind and body, subject and object. Let's use this definition, of consciousness as totality. Consciousness thus stands alone, while it is also expressed differently in manifold vehicles, whether human, animal, or inanimate object. Even scientists admit that nothing is really lifeless, not even that block of wood you're sitting on. I'm lying in bed, which is where the fun happens, and I the life of the party (or so I hope). If we liberate the word from its association with individual identity, world view and thoughts, then we arrive at what ancient mystics wrote about for ages. Consciousness is present everywhere. It is what makes everything possible. Indeed these mystics believed that everything is but an appearance in consciousness. That consciousness imagines the brain and designates the brain as its seat. Where in reality consciousness is all that is, everywhere at all times, because it is spaceless and timeless. Everything is merely an appearance in consciousness, like the dream that takes place on the canvass of your mind! Heady stuff. I have harped on it before.
Consciousness is the medium through which we experience ourselves, the world, life. In the world there seems to be one constant, and that is change. Seasons change. Loved ones die. Friends leave us. We grow old. The party is over. Nothing lasts forever. But the truth is that there is one constant other than change, and that is the consciousness in which change takes place. That consciousness is ageless, always the same, and it is your true identity. Without consciousness, there is nothing. Think of deep sleep. You are not conscious. Nothing happens. At least not that you are aware of. Your pains and your joys are all experienced through consciousness. In the sense of being aware, and also awake. Consciousness is with you wherever you go, whether young or old, it is always the same. It just is. Lots of things happen to you, but one thing is the same, you are there. And at back of it all, the you - the I that unites us all - is changeless.
Without consciousness there is no joy of meeting someone new, no heartbreak when they run out on you, no gratitude when they come back and you kiss and make up. Provided you do. Friends may come and go, but you, the witness, always remain the same. Next time you're happy, thank consciousness. Next time you're sad, know that this too shall pass.
Be fixed as the witness. And you'll be content whether your friend comes back to you or not. Though you hope she does come back. Hint, hint. Then we can see what happens when consciousness unites. Call it a marriage of the mind. And so much more besides.