Thursday, April 12, 2007


Talking about consciousness is difficult and frustrating. It's like one of those visual puzzles. When you first look at it you see an urn. People tell you there are two women's profiles there, but try as you may you can only see the urn. After staring for a while, at some point you suddenly see the two faces and the urn disappears. Afterward, it's hard to get back to seeing the urn when you are perceiving it in the opposite way. Understanding consciousness is something like that. You can't look at it directly, but you can 'get it'. Once you get it so many things in life fall into perfect place, that you will never go back to looking at the world the other way, because that perspective now appears not only nonsensical, but inside out. Also, once you've gotten it, it is frustrating trying to explain it to others. They think you're arrogant or that you have a 'far-out' or 'new-age' philosophy, when you have no philosophy at all. This is just the way that you are experiencing the world, and you know it's right because everything fits. If you talk about it you do so because you are trying to get others to see the light or because you are fed up with the arrogance of some scientific know-it-alls or the stultifying effects of materialism on the society as a whole. Getting it is also not a result of years of education. In fact, if it is Western style, scientific education, all those years of looking at life in a certain way, and perhaps one's professional commitment to that perspective, make it even harder to 'get it.'

Let's first look at the way the Western scientific community is currently approaching the subject of consciousness. When you physically observe the body, using the most modern instruments, and try to discover the very beginning of life, you get as far back as the genes. Genes, as was explained earlier, are not the actual beginning, though. They are the threshold between the invisible world of consciousness, will and intelligence and the physical world of bones, blood, brains and neurons. Will is the desire of consciousness to have and sustain a life in the physical universe. The genetic code is the cosmic mind's or the cosmic conscious', or God's, surpassingly ingenious system of growing a body to be able to participate in this physical universe. One word here about the G word, which is perhaps the most politically incorrect word that one can use in certain company. As Lao-Tzu said, "The name that can be named is not the nameless name". In other words if you call it God, the Cosmic Consciousness, Jesus, Allah or the Great Father, it is not any of those names, and whatever those names conjure up for you, it is not that either. It is not any content. It is not anything you can point to. You are part of it. So in trying to understand or experience the Divine, it is a more fruitful path of discovery to look within at the pointer than to analyze whatever it is that you are pointing at. It is not the sight, but the seer. You are made in the image of God, says the Bible, and this is what that means. It's not that you look like God, it is that your essence, the seer of your sights, the hearer of your sounds, the thinker of your thoughts, the context not the content of your experience, the invisible bowl from which you experience your entire life, is of the same spiritual essence and is an inextricable part of God.

When science observes in the other direction, when they look not at the beginning but at the end of life, in other words at your actual experience, they get as far as the electrical and chemical patterns on the surface of the brain. Just as life force and will is now considered an illusion because it hasn't been detected through scientific instrumentation, and life is now considered to be an act simply of protein manufacture; so consciousness, the very experience of life, is now also considered an illusion, a trick of the brain. It's like describing a house by listing every nail, screw, piece of wood and metal in it. If this house happens to be your home, the problem with this description is that no one built it, no one designed it and no one is living in it!

Steve Pinker writing in Time Magazine says, "Scientists have exorcised the ghost from the machine, not because they are materialistic killjoys, but because they have amassed evidence that every aspect of consciousness can be tied to the brain." Every aspect, that is, except consciousness itself. Imagine that you were looking at a television screen and an army of scientists, with unlimited funding and unlimited time on their hands, had recorded every possible program that you could watch. Not only every program, but every moment of every program was catalogued, so that they, the scientists, knew how to produce every image that appeared on that screen and could tell you when and where it was produced. Knowing all this, would it bring them one iota closer to understanding you, who is not the television screen, but the person watching the television screen?

Let's look at these aspects of consciousness that Pinker writes about. Light waves coming into your eyes are translated into electrical impulses that create patterns on your brain. Sound waves, tastes, touches, all do the same. There are also electrical and chemical patterns created by thoughts and emotions. Now is that the end? Is that how you experience your life? Is that what you see, hear, touch and smell; electrical and chemical patterns on the surface of your brain? If I was looking through an MRI or some other device that could see your brain patterns as you were looking at a sunset, would I be seeing that sunset? If I scanned your brain as you were listening to Beethoven, would I be hearing Beethoven? Don't you see that there is a huge difference between electrical and chemical patterns and what we actually experience? How huge? It's not apples and oranges. It's not even apples and elephants. It's more like apples and nebulae. It's a completely different plane of existence.

Electrical patterns on the brain are the body's outer threshold of the physical universe. Everything that you experience, your perceptions, feelings, thoughts, relationships, dreams and ambitions, lie beyond that. Just like the sense organs, brain and nervous system translate lights, sounds, and touches into electrical patterns; another system translates those patterns into actual experiences. That system cannot be seen. That system is not part of the physical universe. That system is called 'you'. It is also called consciousness. So with living beings, everything begins with the cosmic consciousness and ends with a limited consciousness, which is of exactly the same nature as the cosmic consciousness, but of a much more limited scope, since it is connected to a specific brain, a specific history, and a specific point of view.

The idea that things begin in consciousness and end in consciousness may be easier to grasp when you consider man made things. Look at all the supposed ghosts that have been exorcised from all the machines that Pinker is talking about. Every man made machine begins with consciousness. Some one had an itch, or a twitch, that materialized into a desire, that materialized into an idea or an image, that materialized into a plan, that materialized into the machine itself. And who is the machine for? It's for a conscious being, of course, because only a conscious being can use, enjoy or benefit in any way from a machine. So the machine begins in consciousness and ends in consciousness. Science has not exorcised the ghost from any machine. And with life itself, out of the cosmic consciousness comes the desire or will to experience a life in the physical universe. The end result is a consciousness that is tied to a specific body and a specific point of view.

Consciousness is not one of the evolutionary bells and whistles of the brain. Consciousness is you. It is who you are. Without consciousness there is no you; there is no reason for the brain; there is no life. There is no seeing, no hearing, no thinking, nothing. Scientists may examine the contents of consciousness but not consciousness itself. The brain may resemble a computer, the eye a camera and the ear a recording device. Yet the brain, the eye, the ear, and if you think about it, the computer, the camera and the recording device as well, would have absolutely no use at all without a consciousness to experience their output.

Hindus talk about two birds in a tree. One is very active. She never stops singing, building nests, eating, growing, flying, having children, tending to her children, growing older and dying. The other bird just sits watching. She never moves, she never changes. She just continues to observe everything. The active bird is your self with a small s, your relative self. The still, observing bird is your Self with a capital S. The small s bird is caught up in the constant, ceaseless changes of life. The large S bird, the watcher, is eternal and immutable. Did you ever, a moment after you woke up, have the sudden feeling that you are exactly the same as you were when you were a small child? Then, all the adult thoughts and concerns of the day rush in and the experience is quickly forgotten. Well, that you, that consciousness that exists prior to all the particular thoughts, concerns and desires of the moment, not what you are looking at, but the looker, that's the real you, that is pure consciousness.

Steve Pinker writes, "Consciousness turns out to consist of a maelstrom of events distributed across the brain. These events compete for attention, and as one process out shouts the others, the brain rationalizes the outcome after the fact and concocts the impression that a single self was in charge." Yow! And this statement does not come from some marginal publication. This is from a cover story for Time Magazine. This represents the latest in scientific thinking. So now, along with life and consciousness, modern science declares the self to be illusory as well. I may be mystical but I am also from the Bronx. You can't take away my life, my consciousness and my 'self' and not expect a fight.

Seriously Steve, consciousness is not this maelstrom of events, but 'that which' experiences the maelstrom. Consciousness is not a thing. It is not 'that', but 'that which experiences that'. To experience this 'watcher' without the things being watched, to experience pure consciousness without the maelstrom, this has been the goal of meditators and mystics through the ages. It cannot be studied scientifically because it is not a thing. It is not content, but context. It is the non-physical bowl within which you experience your experience. As opposed to the maelstrom of events, it, the watcher, pure consciousness, is the real you and it is not constantly changing. It is everlasting and immutable. This is knowledge that comes from looking away from the maelstrom, not from analyzing the maelstrom. It is the result of a search, not research.

Now a few things about this 'rationalizer', the brain. The brain is matter. The brain is not a being. In spite of all the conversation you hear about "my brain wants to do this", or "our brains have evolved to do that", the brain does no such things. The brain is not a being. You will never be introduced to or get to meet your brain. Your brain, when it is in your living body, is the passive conductor of electrical impulses and chemical reactions. When it is out of your body it is three pounds of meat. It does not want anything. It does not care about anything. It does not rationalize. It does not do spin doctoring. It does not want to protect you. It does not even know you. It is a piece of meat. It has no will, no intelligence, no desires and no grandiose evolutionary ambitions. You, that is consciousness, has all those things. You also have a brain. This brain has grown in complexity because conscious beings through the ages have wanted to have more and more complex interactions with the physical universe and have developed more and more complex brains to help separate and conduct the energy needed to execute all these interactions.

Then, Pinker asks, "Why does consciousness exist at all"? The main reason he gives is to help the brain with information overload. The implication being, if there were less information we would be better off without that pesky consciousness. What? Hold on! We are consciousness. What 'we' would be better off if there were no consciousness? There would be no 'we'. We are consciousness. We have come from consciousness and we return to consciousness.

Finally, not wanting to be a spiritual killjoy, I do never the less have to say that scientists will never, never, never discover consciousness or 'the Self' through the use of instrumentation or through physical observation. As you read this paragraph there are legions of dedicated scientists making prodigious efforts to understand these problems. In an effort to understand how sights, sounds, smells and touches are translated into our actual experience, they are probing and scanning the brain and finding ever more complex electro-chemical patterns. Again, these patterns, no matter how complex, are still composed of electricity and chemicals. They are of a completely different dimension from what we actually experience. And as you notice different parts of the brain light up with activity when there is thought, or memory or emotion, you will never observe the person who is having these thoughts, memories and emotions. You just see processes, and you never see 'the Self' or consciousness, which is not these processes, but the one which is having these processes. You see processes associated with certain tasks, but you never see the being who has the desires which create the energy for these tasks. You see the brain but you don't see the being whose brain this is, who experiences his life and pursues his goals in the physical world through the intercession of this brain. In spite of your Herculean efforts, you are applying physical techniques to understanding spiritual truths. Until you stop looking through microscopes and scanners and start looking within at the being that is conducting all these searches, you will not make any real headway to understanding the Self, which is the cause of all these ever more complicated results that you study.

Thanks for reading. I welcome your comments.


Andre du Plessis said...

True scientists may never find it. But how will we/they know if they don't keep on trying. A lot of the crucial things we use today are discovered by accident in the scientific community. So even if they don't discover what they are looking for they are bound still to discover a lot of things we might need to know. Objectively these things should allow us to understand our spirituality better.

Matt Chait said...

Scientists may learn new things in these pursuits but they won't learn anything about consciousness,itself, because consciousness cannot be observed. Let's imagine that their research advanced beyond their wildest dreams,and that they now could look at electrical and chemical patterns in the brain and not only know exactly the kind of mental process that was going on, but they could de-code these patterns so they could read them, like a book. So not only would they know, based on the observation of these patterns, that you were looking at something, but they would know that you were looking at a sunrise that you thought was beautiful. So, does that get the scientist, one step closer to experiencing your sunset? No. All he can do is imagine in his consciousness the sunset that you are seeing in yours. We would get no further than if you were writing your perceptions down in a book. I am still surmising, not seeing yours. And I agree that interesting discoveries may happen along the way. We may find how different chemicals and foods and visual and aural stimuli effect consciousness, but again we would discover that from the reports of the conscious being involved and not from direct observation.
If you are waiting to find out what consciousness is, since it's not a thing, you will never get a better description or a clearer understanding than that it is the 'ground of being' it is the 'non-physical milieu in which you experience things', it's 'not that, but that which experiences that.' If you are looking for something more concrete than that, you wont find it, because consciousness is not more concrete than that. And it is possible for you to experience pure consciousness, it's just not possible for you to find a definition that will enable you to picture it.