Three Cheers for Consciousness, Whatever It Is!

In any discussion of the contemplative arts, there is no term more problematical and no topic of conversation more likely to turn rancid than that of “consciousness.” In the following paragraphs I will list a few of the reasons why and ask some of the questions that arose for me in the course of pondering it.

  • The word, “consciousness” is the satchel used to carry a bundle of ideas that have been thrown together without regard for their coherence. Lately I am inclined to think of it as a joke Christmas present consisting of a large, beautifully-decorated box filled with enormous amounts of tissue paper and nothing else. The understanding of consciousness emerges as we unwrap layer upon layer of language and concepts. Most of our ideas about mind, self, and awareness belong to the realm of everyday discourse, acquired from childhood onward in a process that can only be guessed at, while a relatively small number are the result of reflection and study. These conceptual schemata, memes, and ingrained forms of linguistic usage constitute our views. When it comes time to converse we cannot be sure that even our strongest hunches lie altogether beyond their insalubrious influence.
  • The language of conscious and mind is notoriously multivalent and imprecise. “Consciousness” is the semantic equivalent of the astronomer’s black hole. It sucks into itself any meaning that strays too near. Thus we have a single word, “consciousness,” used to denote a range of phenomena that includes (1) various physiological and “mental” functions, (2) the totality of experience, (3) wakefulness as opposed to sleep or coma, (4) sensory awareness, (5) subjectivity, and (6) [certain kinds of] knowledge. We also use “consciousness” as if it referred to (7) a thing or a stuff—a screen on to which thoughts and images are projected, a container that has contents, a stage upon which sensory events appear, and a medium that supports phenomena during their brief lifespans. It is altogether too easy to slip from one sense of the word to another without realizing that a transition has occurred, in what philosophers call the pitfall of equivocation. There can be no doubt that “consciousness” is a very useful term in a wide variety of situations. Even so, I would like to suggest that it is also consistently misleading to the extent that we suppose it to refer to something that exists in the same way that air and water exist. Its true mode of existence is more likely that of the unicorn and Sasquatch.
  • The heritage of Cartesian dualism still lies oppressively over most discussions of consciousness and related subjects. Utter a few words about mind, and the ghost rises up within the machine. Monism may seem to be a forced move, or at least a step in the right direction. But is it? And what difference would it make if we were to trade Materialism for Mentalism? If not much can be said about matter, there is equally little to be said about mind.
  • The distinction between inner and outer realms of experience (that is, between the external world so-called and one’s private mental life), although a perfectly reasonable and well-supported idea, seems (!) not to have a phenomenal basis. When we consider just what is present, we can find no grounds for separation. Contemplatives who have systematically studied sensory phenomena are unable to locate them. Sensation per se is nowhere—that is, it is neither internal nor external. What does that tell us, if anything, about awareness?

cortical sensory homunculus

  • What we know of mind, consciousness, and experience, we know by a process of inference from [perceived or projected] patterns of sensation. That process is developmental. We learn by stages what it means to be a self, to be conscious, and to have a mind. (The same holds true for the material world.) Sensory awareness may be epistemological bedrock. It may be as “deeply” as we can “see” “into” ourselves. Sensation may be as much consciousness as we require. Why do we suppose that there is something more?
  • Sensation is multi-modal. We have learned to distinguish at least six kinds—visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, olfactory, ideational—and, with training, we can identify several more “senses.” At any particular moment, do we attend to one mode or several at once? Do we always have the clear sense that we are perceiving this or that kind of stimulus? It is not obvious that we do. When we talk about “consciousness,” which kind(s) are we talking about? Or are we talking about a mysterious something else?
  • The volume of raw data provided by the senses at any given moment of waking life is more than the higher neural functions can render “conscious,” hence the need for massively parallel and cooperative processing to eliminate what would otherwise be overwhelming redundancy with little value in guiding the actions of the organism. There is no evolutionary need for the human being to know more than a small fraction of what might be immediately sensible. One of the primary tasks of the brain is to convert the torrent of potential information into a manageable and useful stream. What does that fact tell us about the limits of our capacity for awareness?
  • As far as we can tell, consciousness is a menu of more or less complex processes that yield a range of more or less detailed reports. At a minimum it involves, besides sensory inputs, the participation of attention, working memory, various mechanisms for recognizing and comparing patterns, and dispositions to action. From an evolutionary viewpoint, consciousness is integral to the activity of the organism, and action the raison d’être of consciousness. If cognitive and neurological scientists are right about that, then whatever the details we may add to our knowledge of consciousness in future, we can safely exclude from our definition the mythical creature so much honored by mystical tradition, to wit, the eternally featureless, passive non-entity Who, despite those deficiencies, witnesses all.

COMIC-miracle-of-consciousness

A Question about Consciousness (the first of many)

From a reader: In Vedic Science there are seven states of consciousness. Is it appropriate to consider them as just “different” states of consciousness -none of them being “higher” than another?

To the extent I can claim to have grasped the conceptual framework of the seven states or levels of consciousness, it would not seem appropriate to consider the various states as merely different so long as one were looking at them from within the tradition. The system, which has its point of origin in the Upanișads, embodies a hierarchy of values rooted in the identity of Atman (Self with an upper-case “s,” the imperishable world-soul) and Brahman, the Supreme.

Between the the first three of the original four kinds of consciousness—waking, dream, dreamless sleep–and turiya (”the fourth,” pure consciousness so-called), latter-day vedantins interposed the transitional stages of soul-consciousness, cosmic-consciousness, and divine consciousness, which are attained through sādhana, spiritual work. The ultimate goal, turiya or unity consciousness is not a state but the putative background against which phenomena emerge. It is also regarded as the source of experience and the True Self. The notions of spiritual ascent and Self-realization are integral to Vedanta. Similar ideas found their way into post-Așokan Buddhism.

Things are bound to have a very different aspect when we examine the methods of spiritual practice, and the assumptions that undergird them, from a standpoint outside of the tradition. For one thing, we are less likely to ignore evidence that contradicts the words of our teachers. Safely out of range of their blandishments, it makes sense to approach the investigation of consciousness with a minimum of metaphysical prejudice, to put off assigning hierarchical status to particular modes of mental operation as long as possible, and to avoid lazily assigning phenomena to sanctioned categories.

Chaos Chu dozing

Experiments with lucid dreaming are in the early stages, and there are obvious difficulties with getting an experiential handle on dreamless sleep. Scientists who study sleep recognize a transitional stage between sleep and waking, called the hypnogogic. The phenomena that result from the practice of systematic mental exercise might be classified differently, and we could add to the list such items as the physiological and phenomenal effects of rhythmic movement, hypnosis, psychoactive substances, sensory deprivation, physiological abnormality, and illness, any or all of which might have a characteristic “state.”

What if we had to describe the same territory to someone who had no knowledge of Indian philosophy or spiritual practice, with minimal reference to the traditional accounts? In the realm of ordinary discourse we might begin by saying that waking, dream, and dreamless sleep are modes of bodily activity, each having specific signs that are, in turn, indicative of underlying physiological activity. The methods we employ to regulate and inspect our own mental processes might well be susceptible to description in similar terms.

Turiya is a special case, to put it mildly. Tradition calls it Pure Consciousness and Self, and makes it the sole candidate for Absolute Reality, yet it has no attributes whatever and bears not the least resemblance to anything one might be tempted to call either consciousness or a self. Yet despite its lack of features attractive and otherwise, we are admonished to get there with all possible haste, as though it were a four-star resort. The ṛshis of yore can take pride in having foisted upon the West a linguistic usage of truly stunning perversity. Whether it is anything more than that, we shall perhaps know one day.

Insomnia

I will be writing a lot about consciousness. Of the many thorny ideas associated with the practice of the contemplative arts, that of consciousness is the one most fraught with pitfalls. It shares many problems with the kindred ideas of mind, experience, and self. In addition to carrying a heavy load of folk-psychology, it is encrusted with philosophical notions that long ago outlived their expiration dates. Because we talk so often about consciousness, awareness, experience, mind, and so on, we tend to believe that we know a lot more about them than we do. In the next post I will list some of the more glaring defects of our discourse on the topic.

The Mirage of Higher Consciousness

In popular writing about “meditation,” skill in the contemplative arts is equated with what is often called “higher consciousness.” The term is a vestige of German Idealism that has been appropriated by denizens of the cultic milieu to evoke and objectify the sense of spaciousness, self-transcendence, and oneness-with-everything that is taken to be the acme of the spiritual life. Although such mental events are comparatively rare, even those experiences classified as “mystical” are entirely normal and consistent with what we know about the physiology of the human body. However, when they are used to support a variety of worldviews that include multiple dimensions, before- and afterlives, alternative physiologies, and Ultimate Realities, we are well advised to stop and think.

Higher-Consciousness

There are compelling reasons to exercise caution in making judgements about the nature of the cosmos based on extraordinary experiences. As organisms enmeshed in a network of biological relations, we human beings are constrained in our ability to know the world in which we live and move and have our being. Like flatworms and voles, we cannot see beyond an experiential horizon limited by the sensory apparatus with which the vagaries of evolution has provided us, and by the material interactions dictated by the range of ecological niches we occupy. Our species has developed a set of intellectual tools, a technology, and methods for their use that allow us to greatly extend the normal range of the senses. Even so, experience alone does not give us warrant to speak of an Absolute or Ultimate Reality except, perhaps, in the sense that there are bound to be limits to both sensation and understanding. The sensory realm is Appearance all the way down[1]. We cannot achieve a God’s-eye view, though we might well be able to convince ourselves that we can. Something like that seems to have happened in the case of certain latter-day “enlightenments.”

There are constraints built into the very activity of striving for mental stability, too. Many of the classic methods of “meditation” do not raise consciousness but lower it. Let us take, for instance, a simple attentional exercise, the basic technique of resting the attention on a pre-selected cluster of sensations. Every gain in sensory purity is accompanied in the same moment by a corresponding loss of perceptual leverage. That tradeoff is not a paradox. It is what happens when, in the course of attaining optimum mental stability, the organism makes the most efficient use of diminishing resources. Think of it as a kind of cognitive downshifting. In the course of enacting the contemplative protocol, the information-processing modules in the cerebral cortex that give semantic structure to events are taken offline one after the other. Mental functions that have been fully recruited to the observation and/or construction of a pre-selected range of sensations are unavailable to be deployed elsewhere. As the various parts of a complex mental procedure become overlearned, and the higher cognitive functions are pacified, awareness is gradually diminished, together with the power to report.

cup of tea

Both concentration and decentration, at their most intense, radically simplify experience by adjusting attentive patterns to bypass memory and the mental operations (pattern-recognition, comparison, etc.) that make noticing possible. The power to conceptualize is likewise inhibited and, along with it, the ability to say anything about what is occurring. Where the capacities for language and thought are in abeyance, we cannot speak of knowledge. Jhāna samādhi lands us in such unvarying landscapes as neither-perception-nor-non-perception and the-extinction-of-perception-and-feeling. The cultivation of liberating insight requires us to remember, to compare, to analyze, and to reflect, functions that can sometimes be performed after the fact. If there is anything aptly called Higher Consciousness, we will find it there, in the realm of knowledge.

[1] The Buddha said as much in the Sabba Sutta (SN 35.23).

Altered States of What?

Writers on “meditation” sometimes characterize contemplative processes as altered states of consciousness. In many such discussions of comparative experience, “consciousness” denotes the condition of being wide awake, responsive to stimuli, and able to deal with the events of everyday life in the usual ways. Ordinary consciousness so conceived is made to serve as the default setting for experience. All other “states” are considered to be deviations from a mode of mental operation alleged to be normal for the quotidian.

Sunrise Santa Cruz

One problem with that concept is that our knowledge of ordinary, everyday consciousness is so slight. We know very little of how our minds work from moment to moment and day to day. And why should we? Most of the time we are following the dictates of archaic biological dispositions, social necessity, or momentary desire, and therefore we are properly focused on getting the job done. Although the notion of a single, basic mode of mental functioning has great appeal—if only on account of its simplicity—it is very much more likely that in the course of a day our minds cycle through a great many diverse “states,” the precise nature of those modes depending upon the varying circumstances. At least that is the tentative hypothesis to which I am led by my own attempts to monitor the vagaries of moment-to-moment mental functioning.

Everyday life (as it is known) is replete with frequent, if unpredictable, instances of the marvelous and the extraordinary, though of course we must have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. That is, we must be capable of a presence-of-mind that is one of the necessary conditions for the contemplative life. Then again, at the extreme of attentive fixation, dissociation, or imagination, events can occur so far out of the ordinary that they can shed a transfiguring light upon our day-to-day lives, or utterly resist assimilation, and leave us speechless. Yet even when we acknowledge the possibility of stupendous phenomena, it is safe to say that there is no standard-of-consciousness against which to measure them.

It is flattering to suppose that from the moment I awaken until the time I fall asleep I maintain the ability to engage in abstract thinking and problem-solving. It would be more accurate to say that, part of the time, I am in a state of readiness to be fully conscious at a moment’s notice. The rest of the time I am daydreaming, dozing, absorbed in contemplation of a mountain view, performing a familiar task automatically, or otherwise occupied. I am not always in full possession of my faculties and ready to rumble, and there is no point in claiming otherwise. It is more fruitful to think about consciousness as a menu of modi operandi from which the organism and the environment together select the one that is the best fit with the situation, without bothering to consult the higher executive functions. That is why, until I began to explore the opportunities for self-awareness, I did not have to think much about what I was doing.

Black-Billed-Nightingale

In short, when we do not need full consciousness we do not use it. We employ higher-level conscious functioning sparingly because it is slow, costly to maintain in terms of physiological resources, fatiguing, and potentially dangerous—while we are inventing the wheel a saber-toothed cat might be able to sneak up on us. And, as it happens, neither are we nearly as conscious as we think we are when, as in “meditation,” we are making as special effort to be more conscious! I shall expand upon that point in the next post.