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.


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.


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.