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.


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)

By Way of Introduction

This is a blog about the (mostly Buddhist) methods of self-examination and self-management that are collectively known as [mental or spiritual] cultivation (bhavanā). I had intended to publish these pages under the title, “Mindfields,” which suggested to me the several vantage points from which consciousness can attempt to view itself, and the variety of maps of the territory that can be drawn from the perspectives of religious tradition, cognitive psychology, philosophy, and neuroscience respectively. The word is attractive also because of its similarity to “minefields.” Any investigation of the related topics of mind, self, and the origins of experience is fraught with dangers. Over decades of practice and reflection, I have come to believe that we “meditators” do not know nearly as much about our arts as we think we do. In these pages I will explore the reasons for that shortfall and related defects in understanding and pedagogy. As it turned out, “Mindfields” was adopted by the authors of at least a dozen other blogs and websites.

Liar facce illusion

I envision the content of these pages as a prolonged meditation on “meditation,” a turning and returning of the eyes of thought upon the processes of stilling the waves of thought—θεωρία, respectful appreciation, and contemplatio, the clearing of an empty space in which the mind can stretch itself out before the altar of the mind.

Trained in time-honored methods in traditional ways, I had the good fortune to meet a few teachers who were not afraid to challenge received knowledge and offer alternative interpretations of basic texts. They know who they are, and cannot be held responsible in the least for the limitations of my thinking.