Can you remember the moment at which you became conscious? The day, the month, the year? I am speaking of being not merely sentient, but fully self-conscious, capable (in potential at least) of contemplating the fact of your own existence.
I can remember how it suddenly came upon me, when I was around ten years old; how it stunned me, the realization that I am not only aware but self-aware; that mine is a unique perspective; that my sense-of-self might be other than what it is; that it might not be at all! The thought was breathtaking. I was preoccupied with it for a long time, or so unreliable memory informs me.
In retrospect the fact of my coming-to-consciousness has certain curious implications, of which the most obvious is also the most startling, namely, that we are not always conscious. For I think it seems to us, much of the time, that I am conscious now, that I was conscious a moment ago (and yesterday), that I will be conscious an hour from now, and that I will continue to be conscious right up to the moment of death–or, as one might conceive of it, even beyond death. But, as we shall see, there are many reasons to doubt that consciousness is continuous and much evidence that awareness, whatever it is, cannot possibly be what our way of talking about it suggests that we believe it to be.
The status of consciousness; the means by which we can explore, modify, and regulate it “internally”; the evidence of the senses, of the biological sciences, and of philosophy; all these–together with a record of our ongoing attempts to apply and understand the various contemplative disciplines–will be the stuff of this series.
We cannot say with certainty where this story begins. The core teachings of the Buddha provide a valuable clue. Of the main families of Buddhistic teachings–Theravada, Mahayana, and Mantrayana–each has its own way of expressing the Buddha’s vision: that every phenomenon arises out of a flux of causes and conditions and returns thereto. Change and interdependence are paramount in this way of looking at the sensory world. All things depend upon other things for their existence and non-existence, and nothing is altogether separable from its milieu. Objects are properly viewed as events, and persons as processes. The unceasing alteration of the sensory realm has no discernible beginning. Consciousness, mind, and the idea of self emerge from the vast, starry depths of time and space. The universe blinks, looks around, and discovers itself.