Consciousness is at the heart of our existence, so it is odd that we find it hard to talk about it without specialist language creeping into the room – whether it be Darwinian, mystical, metaphysical, philosophical, psychological or any other. We non-academics can talk about our health, our gardens, our emotions or our planet and be understood without a single opaque phrase passing our lips, so it is puzzling that we find it difficult to talk about our consciousness in ordinary language. After all it is closer to us than anything else, indeed it is us!

The apparent reason is obvious, but no less confounding: we must be conscious, use our consciousness, to talk about consciousness. It is all inclusive. Talk about consciousness is a manifestation of what it is to be conscious, so to talk about consciousness as a thing, as part of the physical universe, it must somehow get out of itself to point at itself. That said, there may be some useful things we can say when trying to understand just what it is.

More or Less

I am more conscious when I type this than when I am asleep. It is something – a quality? – I can have more or less of; something I can concentrate. But that doesn’t tell us what it actually is. Mystics say that consciousness is life; it is ‘being’ as opposed to non-being; it is the Gnostic knowledge of existence. Human beings have the unique facility to be able to practice simply being, to know it, by concentrating or focussing their attention or consciousness.

The Death of Consciousness

When I die, physically, my consciousness will, somehow or other, have ceased. The slice of consciousness that uses ‘me’ to talk about itself will no longer have a body or a brain through which to see itself in the mirror. So we can say that consciousness is life and total absence of consciousness is death. Mystics talk about death; they say physical death is not an end, but a change. An individual may die, but that is like a particular wave on the sea reaching the shore. The ocean doesn’t cease to exist or to have waves.

Memories of Self

My ability to finish a sentence, let alone a paragraph, has to be a result of qualities of my consciousness like memory and persistence in time. My sense of having a self is entrenched in memories of having a past and an awareness that the self that answers to my name persists in time. But it could be that these qualities are elaborate constructions of my consciousness – another dead end! All mystics tell us consciousness transcends time and space. It is not of the physical of this world, though it is in it. There is the anecdote of the adept sitting to meditate. As he lowers his body he knocks a vase off the shelf now above him. He focuses his consciousness and enjoys the bliss to be found in that concentration. When he has had his fill, he brings his attention out into the world again and catches the vase. Consciousness is inclusional of everything else. In a very important sense it IS everything else and, when working through a human, its self-awareness can be focused.

My ability to recognise your voice on the phone is just one of many sophisticated functions that my brain performs through its consciousness (but it does so unconsciously), and yet both of us would struggle to explain what ‘you’ and ‘I’ are. We can wonder at the cleverness of the mind that operates in our brains while not even beginning to understand the consciousness that powers it. Yes, it is amazing that we can recognise someone by just hearing their voice for a second and that some of us can devise the most unlikely quantum mechanical theories as to the nature of matter, but these things do not make us what we are: human. The capacity to focus our attention is what distinguishes us from chimpanzees, not cleverness. Our consciousness enables us to step into eternity.

Who Knows?

My consciousness knows things ranging from where objects are through the rules of arithmetic to the difference between depression and contentment. My mouse is where I left it when I last used it – I know this on a physical level, such that I don’t have to look for it with my eyes, but simply put my hand straight on it. I know that if I add another mouse I will have ‘two’ mice. When depressed my consciousness knows its environment as a flat place, drained of qualities, but it also forgets there are other ways of seeing the world. When contented my consciousness easily forgets about the deep, dark woods of depression and dances out of itself into the wonders of the created world.

But once again this doesn’t help – all this knowledge is fleeting and does nothing to tell me who I really am or what’s the point of being human. On the other, mystical hand, we do know, in an irreducible God-like way, that peace is only to be found in the centre of our beings, in the practice of being here now. We may not know how, but we know the truth when we see/hear/experience it, and the more we are able to be in the centre of our beings, the more we will be content with simply knowing. ‘Sat’ is a Sanskrit word that means both truth and reality – the truth that pre-exists and out-exists the impermanence of space and time, doesn’t need us to perceive it. With the right practice, we can know it, have gnosis of it, for the intrinsic reality it is.

Telling the Difference

Consciousness has an ability to discriminate, to tell the difference. We have notions of good and bad that we try to apply as we paddle through the sea that consciousness finds itself floating in. We try to do that which we think ‘good’ and not to do ‘bad’ things. (How we know what good and bad are is another matter.) However it does it, consciousness determines how we make our way through the physical. This raises a question at the heart of spirituality: how does something immaterial, unseen, unknown and mysterious act upon the physical in the way it clearly does? Whilst our consciousness is more or less embedded in the material, we have no choice but to try to discriminate, to choose between actions, people, thoughts and everything else, so we can steer our way across the ocean. And we find this choosing so difficult, so frightening, when all we have to go on is our ignorant peering through a glass darkly, pulled this way and that by our appetites for, and love affairs with, the material. When our consciousness is concentrated, when it knows itself, then it is utterly clear that what is good does no harm and what is bad keeps us away from the truth, from reality, where we yearn to be. With that focus there is only the dharma, the right action.

The Ghost in the Machine

Consciousness acts in space and time, it knows where ‘here’ and when ‘now’ are, and yet it is somehow beyond them. There is no kind of microscope that will enable you to see consciousness, but it acts here and now. Without it, houses would not be built, people would not be murdered, babies with their new consciousness would not be created – whatever your view of free will. The busy-ness of all the individual consciousnesses in the world tricks us into thinking we are the doers of our reality. Something that cannot be seen, even with the most powerful microscopes, is running the physical show. How, we haven’t a clue. Mystics remind us that all is one, that we are no more than drops of an ocean’s water, operating under the illusion that our separation from each other and from our surroundings is real. They urge us drops to merge back into the ocean from which we have sprung. What is more, they tell us how to do it.

It Hurts!

Just through looking at you, I know if you are conscious or not, but I can’t be sure if you are in pain, even if you tell me you are. I once heard a story (which I believe to be historically true) of a man who had meditated all his life. In his old age he fell and broke his hip. He was taken to hospital for an essential operation, but absolutely refused to accept any kind of pain relief or anaesthetics because such drugs would dull the bliss he experienced. He persuaded the surgeons to operate without any drugs – he was able to focus his consciousness to such a degree that he could transcend the physiological experience we would normally call ‘pain’. He felt none. No, that’s probably wrong: for him feeling pain, however extreme, was no more noticeable than any other physical experience. He made a full recovery.

Pain is not what it might seem to be. As we grow up, we learn that being separate hurts. There is the physical and emotional pain we encounter as pawns in the pinball machine of life, as we are batted hither and thither. But there is another, a deeper disquiet that is an inescapable condition of imagining ourselves separate. It has many names and shapes: the blues, ennui, weltschmerz, bireh, frustration, depression, loneliness, hopelessness, despondency and on and on, but whatever we call it, we all seek to avoid it, to find comfort. Pain has a purpose: to get us to stop doing what causes the hurt in the first place, whether it is putting our hands in the fire or looking for fulfilment, clarity and love in the business of the world. The blues are a signal that we should look inside our own consciousness for the answer to our isolation. Then it becomes the blessing of solitude.

Creating Reality

Without straying into the opacity of academic philosophy, we can say some interesting things about the relationship between consciousness and the ‘real’ world. If I am made unconscious with an anaesthetic or a blow on the head, the ‘real’ world ceases to exist. You might want me to add “for me” at the end of that last sentence, but that would be redundant. Okay the ‘real’ world would still exist for you, as long as you are conscious, but there is a well-trodden argument (and many convincing psychological experiments) that says ‘reality’ is a creation of our consciousness. Nothing is as it seems to be, or, perhaps, everything can seem to be all sorts of things. Mystics, so-called because they hold the answer to the mysteries, tell us that higher, greater, more concentrated (language starts to fail here) levels of consciousness are more real than the level at which we operate our daily lives. Obvious really! But the felt reality of our worldly lives is so compelling we find it very hard to let it go so we can experience something deeper, more lasting. They call the reality of the world an illusion because it is no more than an impermanent mask. They don’t mean that it is not substantial or that we don’t have to navigate our way through it. They do mean that once we know the deeper reality of consciousness, we will know that our purpose lies within not out there.

Who’s Doing What

Notions that there is some kind of executive, a ‘doer’, at the heart of your or my consciousness seem to be a necessary condition of our existence. What else is it that dies when our bodies stop functioning? How else can we transact with each other? What is it that falls in love with other such doers? But these are notions fraught with difficulty. Any enquiry into what, where or how this executive operates soon come to a crashing halt in dark cul de sacs that no science seems able to convert into motorways. The idea of the self as doer has been changing in shape and importance over the centuries. The Latin term ego is used in English to translate Freud’s German term “das ich”, which literally means “the I”, first coined by him in the 19th Century. But this was only the latest iteration of a concept that had flowered with the Reformation. The 21st Century version has the self as Consumer (and destroyer of planets), trying to make itself real through what it owns and achieves. Mystics tell us this is an illusory recipe that leads only to continued addiction to the world. The practice they teach whereby we can focus our consciousness demands the surrender of this consumer self on the way to a realisation, a becoming real, of a true self. This is still an agency, a doer, but one that is one with the one love that does all the doing, a selfless self.

Maybe the things we can say about consciousness are not that useful! Maybe we can’t talk about it with the language of the everyday! Maybe consciousness is, literally, beyond the intellect. Consciousness cannot be known through the intellect, only in the silent stillness of the practice of being. It being silent, there is nothing that can be said.