What is Consciousness? – part 1February 11, 2013
I’ve been invited to contribute to the on-line magazine Science to Sage. It’s a graphically rich magazine that shares the works of a number current thinkers and artists. Each issue is themed and the March issue I felt I could contribute to. The issue will be out early in
March May but I’ll share the article in 3 parts here for free for my readers.
Update: Here is the graphical, published article in one part (pdf, 3 MB), with the title page and issue contents. It’s on pg 104 of the actual issue. See comments below for a link to the full issue.
[Update: see comments below for article updates]
This version has less brain physiology than my first draft but you may find it a little more accessible than some of my writing as it’s been reviewed by several others. I hope you enjoy.
What is Consciousness? – Part 1
To answer the question “What is Consciousness?”, we need to understand our relationship with it. And to understand that relationship, we need to understand how we develop as people. That’s because who we see ourselves as being determines our relationship with and thus perception of consciousness. To use an analogy, if we want to know a house, we get to know the rooms and step outside and see the house as a whole. Similarly, to know consciousness, we get to know its facets and then see it from outside of itself. That may seem impossible but I’ll explain how shortly.
Understanding consciousness not only allows us to understand who we are but also the fundamental principles that underly the universe. But first, let’s look at the context in which we experience.
In the Beginning
To put development in context, let’s start with birth. When we’re first born, the focus of our development is on the senses and motor activity. We learn to perceive and interpret the world, to walk and to talk. We then shift to desires and basic emotions with the “terrible twos.” As we reach school years, the mind becomes the focus. During the teens, the intellect engages and we’re able to explore abstract thought. These stages (Alexander) correspond with cognitive (Piaget), ego (Loevinger) and moral (Kohlberg) development studied in psychology.
Notice how the leading edge of development dominates at each stage. Also, note how each stage is progressively more subtle and abstract but equally, more powerful and inclusive. Each stage sets the context for how we see ourselves, others, and the world. While we may have become used to our own way of seeing the world, we’ve not seen it this way for large sections of our lives.
Many adults begin stalling development here in what Loevinger called the “conventional” stages such as in “conformist” and “self-aware.” But some continue into “post-conventional” development. First comes the more subtle feelings and intuition. Then we reach the individual ego itself. This development allows what Maslow described as self-actualization.
Given that up to this point, our states of consciousness (waking, dreaming, and sleeping) are directed by brain functions, it’s natural to assume all of consciousness is the same. Also, our subjective reality is often seen as unreliable and imaginary while what we can sense and measure seems real. Seeing is believing. Given that scientists are typical members of the population but with developed intellects, it’s not a big surprise that mainstream science views consciousness as an unpredicted byproduct of brain functioning.
However, to really understand consciousness, we have to go quite a bit deeper. Each time we change a state of consciousness, like falling asleep, we briefly go into a kind of neutral gear. We shift out of one state before going into the next. This neutral gear is a moment of pure consciousness. Normally, we don’t notice this due to its brevity and the “noise” in our physiology. But if we culture pure consciousness or samadhi through meditation, it becomes quite apparent. Take away the busy mind and emotions and we’re left with silent awareness. We can begin to recognize that consciousness itself actually underlies all other experiences and states.
Psychology has begun to study ego transcendence or transpersonal stages of development, partly because of the influence of eastern thought, but also because now there are far more people experiencing “higher states” or stages than in the past. This is due both to the many millions of people who meditate and the effect of that: rising world consciousness. Millions of people enlivening pure consciousness every day enlivens it for everyone as it’s a common, shared field. People with no known history of practice are having profound shifts too.