What Is Consciousness?
One of the central themes of our age is consciousness. Mystics, scientists, philosophers alike have cast their eyes on this elusive entity, but no one seems quite able to say what it is. If you look up “consciousness” in a dictionary, you will often find that it is circularly defined with such terms as “awareness” and “perception.” To be conscious is to perceive; to perceive is to be aware; to be aware is to be conscious; and so on.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to define basic terms without some circularity: right is the opposite of left, and left is the opposite of right. But consciousness is especially problematic because it is so central to our life and experience.
Furthermore, no one has ever figured out how the human brain produces consciousness. In a recent issue of Scientific American, neuroscientists Christof Koch and Susan Greenfield sum up the state of current knowledge when they write, “Neuroscientists do not yet understand enough about the brain’s inner workings to spell out exactly how consciousness arises from the chemical and electrical activity of neurons” (their emphasis). Neuroscientists know that the brain affects consciousness, but that was known as far back as the fifth century BCE, when the Hippocratic text On the Sacred Disease argued (radically for the time) that epilepsy was not caused by divine possession: rather “the brain is the cause of this affection, as it is of other very great diseases.” If you have any doubts on this score, you can prove it for yourself by gulping down three or four shots of vodka: when the body drinks alcohol, the mind gets drunk. Research into the neurological mechanisms that regulate these processes add more detail but no more insight into what philosophers call the “mind-brain problem.”
Personally I believe that this is in large part because up to now no one has clearly defined what consciousness is. Gregory Sams echoes a common sentiment when he writes in the September-October 2009 issue of New Dawn: “There is no accepted standard definition for consciousness. Mystics and philosophers have devoted books to it or summed it up with the two words ‘consciousness is’.”
I would like to propose a very simple, but, I believe, extremely fertile definition: consciousness is the capacity to relate self and other.
How do we know this? It’s quite simple. If there is no sense of self versus other, there is no consciousness. The most obvious example is the state of deep, dreamless sleep. You are unconscious at that time, and there is no sense of self or other – not even the elusive and tenuous sense of self that we possess while dreaming.
No sooner have we said this, however, than we realise that consciousness, this capacity to relate self and other, admits of innumerable gradations. You are not conscious of the physical world when you are dreaming, but you are still possessed of consciousness of a kind. Even dreamless sleep is not utterly devoid of this quality. What, after all, is the most universally prescribed remedy for all sorts of ailments? Sleep, which enables the “self” of the body to fight off the “others” known as pathogens.
We can go further. Anyone with even the slightest experience of animals knows that they too are capable of relating self and other. Dogs and cats can’t reason except in the most rudimentary sense, and yet they have emotional lives that are enough like our own to be more or less understandable. Can we, then, say they are conscious, not as we are, but conscious nonetheless? What about more primitive creatures, going down as far as plants and even protozoans? We may be fairly sure that they don’t engage in Cartesian introspections, but their fierce attachment to life, to perpetuating their own existence, indicates that they too have some sense of themselves over and against an external world.
Like many of the discoveries of the past few centuries, these insights seem to erode the human sense of privilege in being the sole possessors of the magnificent gift called consciousness, but there are some consolations. The problem of human consciousness becomes less confounding if we see it not as something sprung mysteriously out of nowhere but as a stage on a continuum. Moreover, if it is taken to heart, this outlook may help mitigate the feeling of isolation and separation that is the unhappy side effect of our arrogant sense of uniqueness.
Where, then, do we draw the line? At inanimate things? That apparently inanimate objects contain a rudimentary form of consciousness has long been known to the philosophy of India. The British scholar Sir John Woodroffe explains it thus: “In the mineral world Cit [consciousness] manifests as the lowest form of sentiency evidenced by reflex response to stimuli, and that physical consciousness which is called in the West atomic memory.” This ostensibly Eastern idea appears in the West as well, sometimes in unexpected places. Here is an excerpt from an 1890 interview with Thomas Edison by the American writer George Parsons Lathrop:
“I do not believe,” [Edison] said, “that matter is inert, acted upon by an outside force. To me it seems that every atom is possessed by a certain amount of primitive intelligence. Look at the thousand of ways in which atoms of hydrogen combine with those of other elements, forming the most diverse substances. Do you mean to say that they do this without intelligence?… Gathered together in certain forms, the atoms constitute animals of the lower orders. Finally they combine in man, who represents the total intelligence of all the atoms.”
But where does this intelligence come from originally?” I asked.
“From some power greater than ourselves.”
Restating the point, we could say that a hydrogen atom “knows” how to recognise an oxygen atom and, under certain circumstances, how to combine with it to form water. It can, in a manner of speaking, perceive something outside of it and relate to it; it is, in a very rudimentary sense, conscious. If an atom could not take a stance in the physical world and draw some kind of line between itself and what is not itself, it could not exist. Perhaps this is the secret of those tenuous submolecular particles about which today’s physics so tantalisingly speculates. They seem to flash in and out of existence, or, in certain instances, not to exist at all unless they are observed. It is as if their sense of themselves is so frail and ambiguous that it takes an external perceiver to bring them into being, much as the eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish bishop and philosopher George Berkeley claimed that the universe would vanish if God were not there to perceive it.
The sense of self versus other underlies our entire sense of the world. In a human context, it has produced a very strange effect: the pervasive sense that something is wrong. Indeed, we could say that man is the animal that believes something is wrong. A proverb tells us, “A man may have many problems; a man who is hungry has only one.” Granted – but if the man’s hunger is satisfied, the other problems that were waiting in the wings now come on stage. To all appearances, this is not true of other species – a dog or cat that is warm and well-fed and in comfortable circumstances does not seem to be aware of any problems. (We often envy them for this.) The sense that existence itself is problematic is basic to practically every religion – whether it calls that problem “sin” or “the Fall” or “samsara” or “maya.” Nor is it eliminated if we take religion out of the picture; it is then simply called something like “existential angst.”
What is this “something wrong”? To make an extremely broad generalisation, Western religion has tended to portray it in moral terms – chiefly sin. At some point man chose to go his own way apart from God, and he has been in a vale of tears ever since. Eastern religions, on the other hand, have tended to portray this problematic nature of existence in cognitive terms. It is a matter of illusion or ignorance. As I say, this is an extremely broad generalisation, and many exceptions can be found. Socrates and Plato, for example, the fathers of Western philosophy, said that the human condition is characterised by ignorance and delusion. But by and large the generalisation holds true.
The moral aspect of the human condition has been overemphasised in the West. No doubt there is a moral dimension to the universe – whether we call it the Tao, dharma, the will of God, or something else – and it is possible within this dimension to do evil. At the same time, it seems an exaggeration to say that we are conceived and born in sin, as conventional Christianity has too often done. One has the impression that Christianity created original sin as a problem to which it could then offer itself as the solution. It is as if a doctor were to make up a disease for which, of course, only he would have the cure.
For Western civilisation today, then, it would make sense to look more deeply into the cognitive nature of this problem, and as a matter of fact that is what many people are doing. The popularity of Buddhism and certain forms of Hinduism, such as Advaita Vedanta, indicates as much. In this context it may be possible to say more clearly what this problematic nature of existence has to do with the relation of self and other that we call consciousness. One of the most profound myths to cast light on this issue, taken from the Hindu tradition, is the curious tale of the dice game of Shiva.
One day the embraces of the Hindu god Shiva and his consort, Parvati, who have spent eternity rapt in lovemaking, are interrupted by a sinister yogi named Narada. Narada says he can show them something that is even more delightful than love. It is a game of dice – an ancestor of today’s Parcheesi.
Intrigued by his offer, the divine couple begin to play. Each of them cheats as much as possible, but no matter how long they play, the outcome is always the same: Shiva loses and Parvati wins. Shiva may have the advantage for a round or two, but he can never win a game.
At one point Shiva is ahead; he has won a couple of Parvati’s jewels, enraging her. Noticing that the angrier she becomes, the more beautiful she grows, he coaxes her into continuing. Parvati agrees to play if Shiva will wager his chief attributes: his trident, the crescent moon, and a pair of earrings.
Of course Shiva plays and loses. But he refuses to accept this fact; after all, he is Shiva, the lord of the universe. “No living being can overcome me,” he tells her. She replies, “No living being can overcome you, it’s true – except me.” In spite, she leaves him. She takes not only the trident and moon and earrings but a pair of snakes and even his last item of clothing, his loincloth.
Shiva is not troubled. He withdraws to the wilderness and leads the life of an ascetic, free from the preoccupations of the world, meditating in solitary peace. Parvati, on the other hand, feels lonely and frustrated without him. Intent on winning him back, she takes the form of a lovely tribeswoman (an untouchable in the Hindu caste system) with red lips, a graceful neck, and magnificent full breasts. She is so beautiful that even the bees in the forest are overcome with love.
Shiva, roused from his meditation by the noise of the bees, sees Parvati in the guise of the tribeswoman and is overcome with desire for her. Coquettishly she says, “I am looking for a husband who is omniscient, who is free and fulfils all needs, who is free of mutations and is the lord of the worlds.”
Shiva says, “I am that one.”
Parvati replies, “You shouldn’t talk to me that way. I happen to know that you have a wife who won your devotion by many austerities, and you left her in a flash. Besides, you are an ascetic, living free from duality.”
“Even so, I want you.”
Parvati says that he must ask permission of her father, Himalaya, the lord of the mountain chain. Shiva approaches him, but Himalaya says, “This is not right. You should not be asking me. You are the one who gives everything in all the worlds.”
At this point Narada reappears and tells Shiva, “Listen. Infatuation with women always leads to mockery.”
“You’re right,” Shiva replies. “I have been a fool.” And Shiva withdraws to a remote part of the universe where even yogis cannot go.
At this point Narada convinces Parvati and Himalaya to implore Shiva to return, and they do so by praising him lavishly. Mollified, Shiva comes back, and he and Parvati resume their reign in unity.
Contrary to Einstein, this myth seems to be saying that God not only plays dice with the universe but constantly loses. Why should Shiva, the lord of the universe, be lured into indulging in a version of strip Parcheesi? How can he lose? Who is his consort? Why does she win?
In essence, we could say, Shiva represents consciousness – what the Hindu tradition often calls purusha. Sometimes translated as “spirit,” it signifies consciousness in a sense much more universal than mere human awareness. Parvati represents prakriti. This is sometimes translated as “matter” or “nature,” but it signifies something far more encompassing – the contents of consciousness, experience in all its forms, internal and external – what esoteric Christianity calls the “world.” At the beginning of the myth they are locked in union. There is no distinction between consciousness and its contents. Therefore there is no world. The Hindus call this state pralaya, the state of primordial sleep that prevailed before the universe bestirred itself to manifest. The Hindu scripture known as the Rig Veda describes it:
Then [before the beginning]
there was neither death nor no-death,
no sign of night or day.
The One breathed, breathless,
through its own impulsion,
and there was no Other of any kind.
Note that it’s precisely the absence of the “Other” that characterises this primal repose. The dice game, introduced by Narada, the personification of discord, symbolises the beginning of manifestation. No manifestation can exist without a distinction between self and other. But this distinction is not the property only of conscious subjects such as we imagine ourselves to be. It is characteristic of everything, because, as I have indicated, even an atom or electron must have some sense of itself simply to cohere at all. It must perceive an other in order to distinguish itself from that other and so maintain a stable existence.
The fundamental dynamic of reality, then, is that of Shiva and Parvati: consciousness, or self, in all its forms, and experience, or the other, in all its forms. After all, if consciousness consists of the ability to relate self and other, this polarity is and must be primary. If there is no self and other, there is no universe.
Nothing in manifest existence is absolutely a self or an other. They are merely matters of perspective. A hydrogen atom has some consciousness, demonstrated by its ability to recognise an atom of oxygen and interact with it under certain circumstances to form water and other compounds. From its point of view, it is a self and the oxygen atom is the other. To the oxygen atom, exactly the opposite is the case: the hydrogen atom is the other, just as I am other to you and you are other to me. This fact indicates that the relation between self and other, between “I” and the “world” outside, is a constant, dynamic interplay for all entities at all scales and levels of complexity. We can find metaphor for this in the game known as Othello, or Reversal, which employs disks that are black on one side and white on the other. Each player takes turns setting them down on a grid, and the player who has more disks of his own colour on the board at the end of the game wins. If, say, you are the black player and you manage to cap a line of white disks with your own black disks at both ends, the whole line of white disks flip over to black. In the course of the game, whole lines of disks flip from white to black and back again. This process hints at the ever-shifting reversal of self and other that prevails in the universe at all levels.
But to return to the dice game, where does it fit in? And why does Shiva always lose?
Shiva represents what one of the Upanishads calls the “seer of seeing.”5 Seeing in all its forms – that is, consciousness – imparts existence to the world. Nothing exists unless it is seen. Paradoxically, this includes Shiva’s own attributes. They do not, strictly speaking, belong to consciousness, which in its pure form has no attributes; it simply sees. (This may explain why philosophers are frustrated in their attempts to define it.) Any qualities that we can ascribe to consciousness are immediately seen; they are part of the world; and the world is Parvati. And so Parvati always wins. Her victory strips Shiva down to his pure, naked essence, which is seeing alone. For all the possible throws of the dice – that is, for all the possible directions manifestation can take – Shiva will always lose.
Nevertheless, Shiva takes his defeat with aplomb and simply retreats to the forest. That is to say, consciousness can detach itself from its experience; it can free itself from its own contents. This detachment is the goal of many forms of meditation. It suggests why Shiva is described as an ascetic.
Consider your own experience now. Most likely you are not aware of yourself, except as part of a vague background. But if you bring your attention to yourself, you can feel yourself as an “I” having experiences. Many of these are sensory: this room, this chair, this magazine. You can go still deeper. You can be aware of your thoughts and feelings as they pass over the screen of your awareness (which is generally easier to do if you close your eyes). If you can be aware of even these most private and intimate thoughts as somehow “other,” then where is the “I”? Who or what is it? It has no attributes as such, no qualities; it simply sees. Hence the Hindu sage Sri Ramana Maharshi says that the question “Who am I?,” taken back far enough, will lead to enlightenment.
Enlightenment as customarily conceived is a shadowy concept. About all one can say of it is that it is a higher state of consciousness than we’re accustomed to or for that matter usually believe possible. In light of the ideas I’ve sketched out, however, we might be able to say a bit more. The consciousness that causes the world to arise is common to all things, human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate; there is nothing that does not possess it to some degree. But we almost never experience it in this universal way. On the contrary, it is always me, myconsciousness, fenced in with rigid lines to insulate it from all others. It is precisely this rigid distinction, which is to a great extent artificial and delusory, that constitutes the problematic nature of existence, the sense of something wrong that pervades our souls. As the Greek sage Heraclitus said, “Consciousness is common to all, but most people live as if they had their own private minds.”
Enlightenment, it would seem, lies precisely in the recognition of these truths, not conceptually but directly and intuitively. It may and often does come in an instant. Such insight may be dazzling for the one who experiences it, but it may also not be. For many people, I suspect, it appears “as a thief in the night,” and they cast it aside in the belief that enlightenment means the heavens open and one sees ladders full of angels going up and down, or that one becomes instantly omniscient.
In any event, this experience of insight – whether we call it enlightenment, illumination, gnosis, or something else – marks a fundamental shift in an individual’s orientation. Afterward she is not necessarily immune to the vicissitudes of life: joys and sorrows and aches and pains come as they always have. But in a subtle way they have lost their hold on her. They are no longer absolutes, to be taken at face value. She is aware of a dimension of mind that is above the passing thrills and irritations of existence. This is supernally real and can never be taken away, and so is to be valued above all things. As Christ puts it in the Gospels, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field: which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field” (Matthew 13:44).