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.

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.


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.

Sensations & the Sensorium

The realm of sensation comprises six familiar kinds of phenomena and a few more that often go unnoticed. Each has characteristic qualities that make it possible to distinguish one kind of sensation from the others. For the novice as well as the experienced contemplative it is fascinating and useful to investigate the senses. Let us look at the six primary modes of sensation in turn.

  1. The field of visual sensation is more or less round, highly detailed at the center, which corresponds to the fovea centralis of the retina, and more or less coarse everywhere else. Although the detection of color, edges, texture, movement, distance, dark/light gradation, etc., are functions of sight that are processed in separate areas of the brain, the visual field nevertheless appears as a collection of recognizable entities. Visual perception is often accompanied by the strong sense of an observer who looks out at the world from a position somewhere behind the eyes. That illusion is probably due to the perception of depth that results from binocular vision. The sensory field of sight seems to be outside the body, as compared with the other sensory fields that are felt to be on or in it. This phenomenon sheds light on the tendency to locate oneself (much the time) within the body.
  1. Audition seems to occur for the most part in the vicinity of the ears although attention and imagination will often “move” in the apparent direction of the sound.
  1. Odors are sensed in the nose, and
  1. Flavors on the tongue.
  1. Tactile sensations, which include temperature, pain, itching, and various signals originating in the viscera, seem to be within or distributed over the surface of the body. Other sensory phenomena, such as balance, and the mapping of the body’s parts in relation to each other and the whole in relation to objects in the environment, are seldom even noticed in the course of everyday life.
  1. Thoughts, feelings, judgements, etc., may or may not have an apparent or putative location. (The conventions of folk-topography have them mostly in the head, sometimes in the heart, depending upon cultural norms). Verbalized thought often seems to arise, as represented audition, at an inner “ear.” Certain kinds of thoughts will be accompanied by the mental equivalent of images or sounds. Represented flavors and odors are less common.

six senses ruler

These, then, are the principal means by which we gather information about the environment and our own bodies. But whatever the actual number of senses we may count as contributing to a given moment of experience, the raw data is so great and so diverse that if it were to be taken as a whole, it would be unintelligible. Before that data can be of use to us, impulses originating in the sense-receptors will be shunted about the nervous system, often by multiple pathways, and processed in various ways before they issue in behavior or cognitive events.

Sensory perception is highly organized, and that is the oddest and most interesting thing about it. All six of these modes of sensation occur simultaneously, although it is moot whether one is ever aware of all six with true simultaneity. We are able to distinguish each of the sensory modes from all the others. More wonderful yet, we do not perceive a vast field of chaotic, intermixed sensory phenomena, nor unidentifiable blobs or clusters of visual, auditory, and tactile sensation. We perceive wholes. We perceive things. By the time data of the senses are integrated—and it is a very short time—they have undergone filtering, sorting, pattern recognition and completion, comparison, and labeling, so that we “instantly” recognize them for what they are, except on rare occasions such as when we are suddenly awakened from a deep sleep.

Some of the processes that allow us to recognize things, as opposed to merely sensing them, are the results of evolution, others of learning. They are currently the objects of study by psychologists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary biologists. We meditators can fruitfully study them “from the phenomenal side,” as some philosophers would have it.

In “meditation” we can temporarily suspend or undo selected elements of that information-processing network. To put it another way, we train ourselves to disable the higher cognitive functions by increments, beginning with self-consciousness and working our way “down” through the various layers (about which more in future posts) until we are near to the sensory foundation. Then we simply (!) observe.

In the following posts I will describe a few exercises that helped me to get started in my exploration of this terrain.

On Posture (4)

Before we move on from this topic, let me add a few more thoughts by way of summing up.

The nervous system is the body’s primary mechanism for optimizing movement, and “mind” is a catch-all term for those of the brain’s multifarious communicative activities that we can know or infer. Once the decision to sit and immobilize the body has been made, the amount of sensory input falls off gradually. Merely by sitting still, signals from the environment and signals from within the organism itself are greatly reduced, and the volume of conscious perceptions continue to decrease by stages as the ability to remain focused on somatic processes improves. The bulk of what is experienced during quiet sitting comprises ambient noise, bodily sensations, and a range of unsolicited thoughts.

As the forgoing sketch of its components suggests, the regulation of posture, although fairly straightforward in method, is complex and rather subtle. It is fruitful and interesting because in order simply to sit up straight and relax we are required, first, to become aware of processes that are normally habitual and therefore unconscious and, second, to gain an extraordinary measure of sensitivity to and control over the disposition of the body in space.

That undertaking entails the gathering and processing of various kinds of sensory information from multiple sources and projecting them upon a conceptual-sensory map of the body. The range of data so processed includes inputs from the skin, from a great many muscle groups, and even from the viscera: pressure, tension, bodily orientation, and clusters of what psychologists call interocepts, signals that keep us informed of the status of the systems that regulate our physiological processes. In the early stages of practice we are sensitive to ordinary tactile sensation and the grosser proprioceptive phenomena. By degrees we become able to discern the slightest changes in heartbeat, rate of breathing, and bodily structure.

The development of posture is fundamental to the practice of seated meditation because by attending to the sensations and physiological activities of the body the trainee can come to see that one’s sense of bodily identity is constructed, variable, and transient. Liberating insights of this kind can arise without any special instruction in techniques of contemplation.

With the regular practice of quiet sitting, the trainee can experience deep relaxation, a foretaste of freedom through the calming of thought, increased ability to notice and accept change, and –best of all—escape from the tyranny of urges, cravings, and moods.

frozen wave

On Posture (2)

The benefits of learning to sit with good posture are well known to meditators. They include greater ease of sitting, reduced discomfort and fatigue, improved oxygenation of the blood due to the habit of abdominal breathing, and enhanced ability to relax.

The very process of learning to pay attention to posture gets me “out of my head” by requiring me to attend to the phenomena that comprise the perception of body, thereby reducing my engagement with various kinds of unproductive and obsessional thinking.

Yet, even after we have made an inventory of the virtues of seated contemplation, it is less than perfectly clear why cross-legged sitting has become the prime symbol of spiritual work and the focal point of so much practice. That fact is all the more puzzling because we are told that it is possible to acquire calm and insight in any posture. Chan, a tradition that puts sitting at the very center of Buddhist practice, also declares that one cannot become enlightened by doing it!

Anyone who has succeeded in sitting still for half an hour or more will have an inkling of why sitting has come to be seen as the bodily posture for spiritual work par excellence. Millions of years of evolution have fitted the human body for the tasks of exploiting opportunities to procreate, to obtain food, and to avoid being eaten—in short, for more or less continuous activity in the service of genetic continuity. To sit still while stalking wild game is one thing; the mental faculties will be fully occupied with attending to signs of approaching prey and predators. To sit still for motives related to neither survival nor recreation is an anomaly. While everything in our physiological makeup cries out for us to keep moving, a few members of every generation choose to sit and watch the world go by.

This bizarre if harmless deviation from the norm has given rise to cultural institutions that have endured for thousands of years, producing a grand and glorious edifice of contemplative theory and practice. The Buddhist path is one of several that stem from an ascetical tradition for which the quest for knowledge is rooted in the overcoming of just those urges and genetically-driven agendas that, for most of us, determine the course of our lives. Sex, comfort, and food versus prolonged and vigilant immobility!


Although it has become a platitude of modern spirituality to say that a life of contemplation is compatible with a life of action, it is clear that many of our ancient spiritual forbears did not think so. It is because they appreciated the magnitude of the biological forces arrayed against them that the act of sitting still came to represent the ideal of yogic self-mastery. That commitment to bodily and mental stillness is the main reason why Buddhas, Jinas, and Rshis are nearly always depicted as taking the posture known as the lotus.

(To be continued)

On Posture

[What follows are my replies to a set of questions asked by a student of satipatthāna.]

How important is it to adopt a particular bodily posture when sitting in meditation? Why?
Is there an optimum position? What is it?

Before we examine the salient features of seated posture and their special benefits, it may be helpful to make a few general observations.

Good posture is not so much an ideal as a practical attainment. It is the way of sitting that best facilitates bodily ease and the development of an awareness that is characterized by calm, clarity, and alertness. Although the optimum position of the body will not be exactly the same for any two yogis, certain attributes of one’s best posture (to be enumerated in a future post) will be the same for others.

Close, sustained attention to posture is especially helpful in the early stages of contemplative practice. In some traditions it is considered essential. Near the start of every discourse on the establishment of mindfulness (satipatthāna), the Buddha describes how trainees, “having sat down with legs folded crosswise, holding the body erect and setting mindfulness to the fore,” direct their attention to the cycle of breathing in and out, or the sensations arising throughout the body, or some other aspect(s) of bodily activity. The cultivation of mindful attention begins with immersion in the body.

There are several reasons for that emphasis. The Buddha gives pride of place to mindfulness of the body because bodily sensations and processes are relatively stable and always available as objects of attention, unlike emotions and discursive thoughts, which tend to dissolve under scrutiny or else seduce the beginner away from the task. The cycle of breathing in and out, although variable, is constant and involuntary. That stability and accessibility make it easier for the trainee to manage attention and the cooperating mental faculties, whether the primary aim of the exercise is calming or insight.nerve-sytem

In his instructions on contemplation of the body (kāyānupassanā) the Buddha makes it clear that the skill of self-observation, once acquired, should be extended to every bodily posture and activity at all hours of the day. For beginners, formal sitting at regular intervals is the primary means of cultivating mindfulness and clear comprehension (sati-sampajañña); in later stages of development it will serve as a continuing support for their wider application. The short-term goal of seated practice is to increase one’s capacity for sustained attention to and observation of the various kinds of bodily sensation—tactile, kinesthetic, proprioceptive, etc.—as such, a capacity that will eventually yield the perception of their salient characteristics of discomfort, impermanence, and contingency. Mindfulness, then, is to be “set up” irrespective of posture.

However, it should not be supposed that the process of cultivating mindfulness and alert, comprehensive awareness is something that happens apart from the body. The recent work of cognitive and evolutionary psychologists supports the view that the higher cognitive functions are an outgrowth of bodily dispositions and activity. The evolution of ever more complex nervous systems in hominins allowed the human organism to move through its environment with ever greater safety and efficiency.

It is helpful to think of the mental faculties, such as attention, association, and pattern-recognition, as special activities of the body. The faculties that we normally refer to as mental are the ways in which the organism communicates with the world around it and among its many parts. In this context, sentience is the joint product of the body and the world through which it moves. Because mind is integral to what the body is doing, it is inevitable that the mind be affected when we voluntarily hold the body still for a prolonged period.

(To Be Continued)