I promised myself a while back I’d deal with the issue of consciousness. Writing something as comprehensive as I intended proved to be too great a task to complete in one go. Meanwhile, I decided to try to write shorter posts generally, and try to do so more frequently. So, when a particular reflection on consciousness came to mind, the obvious thing to do was to write about that, perhaps beginning a series.
The series will, I hope, shed a little light on the perennial question of the hard problem of consciousness, obviously from the point of view of philosophical naturalism and materialism.
Meditation on Awareness
I want to begin with a personal reflection, something I believe I’ve learned from my admittedly undisciplined and sporadic meditation practice over the years.
Meditation is presumably the oldest method of investigation of consciousness, to which humanity has added through the ages techniques of philosophy, psychology and neuro-science. Once the human lineage gained the language skills and sufficient awareness of ourselves to conceptualise the question, we must have begun to wonder what this curious thing was that differentiates wakefulness from sleep, and by which we know the things we know.
One of the commonest concerns for the meditator has been the question, “Who am I?” There is a particular form of it that advocates asking oneself that question repeatedly and considering the answers that occur to us, but a whole range of less literal approaches have as their goal the discovery of the nature of the self.
Thoughts and feelings come and go. These are facts we observe. But who is the observer? An obvious way to attempt to identify the self is to eliminate thoughts and feelings. If there are thoughts and feelings and the self, and the self is somewhat obscure, taking away the thoughts and feelings should leave just the self, which might be revealed a little more clearly. Remove the contents of consciousness, and “pure consciousness” can be all that remains. So we just have to stop experiencing. Meditation techniques of this type are designed to still the mind so that, after lots of practice, one can cease thinking and feeling completely and just be one’s pure consciousness.
Of course, this idea of removing the contents of consciousness assumes something will remain, i.e. that the self can be aware without being aware of anything. And it seems to imply that the self can still somehow observe itself.
One important thing to note is that the above describes two different things, the nature of consciousness and the nature of the self, and the unconsidered identification of the two masks an important assumption: that the self is a conscious subject. This appears to explain both things, who we are and what the nature of consciousness is. We posit the “self” and equate it with the (somewhat mysterious) locus where impressions are witnessed. We explain the process of being conscious as the delivery of impressions to this particular entity we call the self. A great many will be so accustomed to this extremely widespread belief, and it will seem to be so true to their experience, that they will have no idea what this paragraph could possibly be implying. However, the philosophical problem this suffers from is that each phenomenon, the nature of which we don’t know, is “explained” by reference to the other, which is equally unknown.
Anyway, the main concern of the current post is the question of what remains when you take away all the contents from consciousness.
Meditation is hard, particularly at first. It takes a lot of practice to even get little gaps in our thinking. In many traditions, effort is put into removing all distractions, both from outside the body and within. Since we experience feelings and perceptions as well as thoughts, we do not want aches and pains, or itches, or interruption by the neighbours.
A lot of my influence was from Yoga doctrines, and from this I gained the impression that the search would reveal to me my Self, the observer who was experiencing things. The space in between the experiences were where this secret lay. Experiencing pure awareness – awareness without being aware of anything – was often suggested to be one of the most important sources of wisdom, giving insight into the nature of reality itself. The mysterious entity encountered was described as being “God Consciousness” or “Universal Consciousness”. This, the yoga books declared, was the truth of who I am, a divine self that is free – if only I knew it – of the body, and of the mind, indeed of all constraints and contingencies, and one with the Universe. Although Hinduism is the basis of yoga philosophy, there are also intimations of this Universal singularity or Oneness in Buddhist philosophy.
The experience of ultimate reality in meditation is often described as the dissolution of the habitual distinction we make between self and the rest of the universe. Samadhi is the contemplation of an object to the point where self and object are supposed to be recognised as indivisible, and this concentration, or “one-pointed awareness”, is often used as a precursor to “pure awareness”. Focusing on one object – a candle flame, a sound, etc. – accustoms the mind to very low levels of stimulation without being distracted, which is required if we intend to remove all contents of consciousness and leave just the “witness”, the contemplation without any object, the mysterious Divine Emptiness, or Self, or Reality, or Buddha Nature, or Godhead. (Here, words become little morsels of greenery. It’s not my fault. I didn’t come up with them.)
So, what do we find?
Well, this has to be a subjective matter, of course, but what I found, I’m pretty convinced, was that apart from experience of something there is probably just no experience. There are two states: conscious-of-something and unconscious. There is not consciousness of nothing, nor consciousness of the self. And nothing I experienced gave me any reason to conclude that I, the object of my meditation, or all the universe were the same, though imagination will easily persuade us of all manner of things that may fly in the face of empirical testing or careful reasoning. (This is not to pre-judge that everthing may be one in the sense that it all belongs to the same process of universal inflation. That’s a very different, non-magical concept.)
Now, I admit I’m not an expert meditator. I haven’t meditated for days, or even hours at a time, or at the feet of a guru in a monastery, and my moments of contemplative silence were relatively brief. Nevertheless, I practised a fair bit and I was serious about the practice I did. I read a good deal, and thought and wrote my own notes about these ideas. I believe I achieved many of the states of awareness described in the literature, including those in question, and I have some confidence that I made sound judgements about what happened – not at the time; at the time, I largely accepted the doctrine – but later, gradually, and with the help of discussions with philosophical naturalists.
My view now accommodates everything I’ve read about meditation if allowance is made for cognitive biases and cultural expectations. As I saw through the assumptions I once held as true, I recognised descriptions of the traditional view as self-contradictory. Take this, for example, from Daido Roshi:
In absolute samadhi, in complete falling away of body and mind, there is no reflection and no recollection. In a sense, there is no ‘experience’ because there is a complete merging of subject and object, or a perfect recognition of already existing non-separation. There is no way of describing what is or was going on.
No experience? No reflection? How, then, can “perfect recognition of already existing non-separation” be possible? How does one recognise without reflection or even experience? This is word-salad. It appears simply to be wishful thinking. The “already existing non-separation” is an ideological position, and its “perfect recognition” is an interpretation of the events of the meditation session to support that belief. The contradictory nature of the statements can be taken as evidence that this interpretation is likely to be wrong. The last sentence is a kicker: the whole passage describes what the writer believes was going on, ending with the assertion that there is no way of describing what was going on.
Parts are consistent, and revealing. If there was “no experience”, then logic dictates there is “no way of describing what was going on”, other than to say that precisely nothing was going on as far as consciousness is concerned. The more ideologically-inclined meditator (as I used to be) tends to wake from nothing and require it to have been something…and something very special.
It’s an easy mistake to make, especially given the meditator’s task of combining concentration with emotional equanimity and effortlessness. The error may be compounded by the close association between the two similar conditions of concentration on a single thing for an extended period of time and attempting to witness emptiness.
During the practice of concentration on an object, one gets tired. The brain doesn’t respond well to very little stimulation over a long period. If, for repeated moments, the function of consciousness stops (that is, you fall asleep and wake again), you will not notice being unconscious (that’s the definition!). However, you will note the passage of time after the unconscious interlude (because the brain monitors the passage of time unconsciously, which is how you tend to know you’ve been asleep if you nod off in a chair). It is therefore easy to see how one might conflate the two conditions (very quietly focused on one thing and being unconscious), interpreting them in combination as the supposed active condition of being aware of nothing (as opposed to not being aware of anything).
The last sentence reinforces the tremendous usefulness of logical analysis of statements. If we can accept that “being aware of nothing” is literally equivalent to “not being aware of anything” – if we can not in all honesty separate them grammatically – we may at least suspect that they may be identical phenomenologically and ontologically.
This practice of reading statements carefully and analysing their logical consistency or inconsistency has become much more natural to me over the last decade. Pseudo-science screams its irrationality at me through its impossible grammar, as do religious and fantastical philosophies (in which I would include much of Buddhism, despite its very useful psychological prescription for the relief of suffering).
History attests to the fact that spending your life in a garden trying not to try to experience non-experience (combined with listening to your masters tell you what you’re experiencing) often leads to the twin conditions of deep confusion and skill at manipulating the meanings of words, giving those who don’t listen properly, including yourself, the impression of sublime clarity. Such philosophers, of course, pretend to make a virtue of their impossible grammar: don’t look at my finger, they say, referring to their circular reasoning, but towards where I’m trying to point. They will (rightly) say that there is no describing the experience they’re pointing at, and (wrongly) that this explains their self-contradictory description.
I might be expected to celebrate Buddhism’s assertion that the self is an illusion, but I’m not sure this is particularly helpful given all the other stuff it asserts, such as that we have past lives and the ultimate goal of life is to cease being reincarnated, that meditation brings all manner of supernatural powers, or that the universe is inhabited by spirits and demons. If the historical Buddha happened to say something that is in accord with modern philosophy and scientific investigation, it might just be by accident.
It does, however, fit with the mathematics of my experience: if one takes contents away from contents + self, and nothing remains, then self = nothing. Witnessing necessarily involves an object. All talk of “the witness” in this metaphysical context may be utter nonsense. Of course, something is certainly witnessing. I hope to delve a little more into what we might reasonably consider that to be in future posts.