What is Consciousness? – part 1 of 3

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 post-personal 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.

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26 Responses to What is Consciousness? – part 1 of 3

  1. Pingback: What is Consciousness? – Part 2 « In 2 Deep

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  3. Excellent maps of consciousness. My experience comports with your descriptions completely. I hadn’t realized, until you pointed it out, the difficulty in accepting the unity perspective. I went through a deep and long transformation through that process, but I had a lot of physics background to inform me while witnessing that occurs in that stage, some of which is very unpleasant.

    This would explain why I feel some resistance from those who have “woken up”, but not completed this stage, as I talk about my experiences.

    Perfect timing again, Davidya. 🙂

  4. Davidya says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Jason. That’s why I explore things like this. If the understanding is there, there is less likely to be that resistance. And there are so many who have some idea they are “complete” when they’re not. It can certainly feel like it at the time.

    No point in trying to convince anyone though. Just suggest they stay open.

    Some describe Unity as unfolding in 10 stages. I’ve not seen that in practice exactly, but it clearly has a series of sub-stages of both the uniting and the much deeper perception.

    You’ll probably find the Brahman shift an even bigger change as it takes one beyond all the Atman stuff developed from awakening through unity.

  5. I don’t know how to describe passing through the Brahman stage other than how you did, if that’s what it was/is/will be (time & space collapsing). I didn’t feel anything but understanding when I read that section. I have described it as discovering the paradox at attempting to draw a line between being and non-being. In the experiencing I had a related painful realization that there can be such a thing as too much power that took a while to extricate from. There followed a profound sense of being alone that lingered long after the events and alternate timelines, witnessing deconstruction and reconstruction, impersonal side trips to fractal universes, the infinite nothingness and other such implausible sounding things I’m still a bit stuck on expressing these inexpressible realizations (thankfully, you can likely translate this word salad into your own experiences). My past 3 years have been highly occupied by reviewing the maps of others, especially Zen, Tantra, Taoism for guidance and reassurance as I started out a scientific materialist with nihilist tendencies with no guidance except my own intense and desperate need to know the “Truth” when I stumbled on direct experience of what is meant by dependent origination in the context of quantum mechanics.

    The heart seems to be directing me to communicate my maps for the science-minded so I haven’t focused as much on more esoteric personal voyages like the Upanishads, but perhaps this is merely a residual bias of my path (while speaking from the relative where “path” still has meaning).


  6. Davidya says:

    Hi Jason
    Well – it’s difficult to explore progress in a forum like this. But if you have the basic understanding, it will become clearer in time.

    Time-space collapsing or rolling up is more a unity stage where aspects of atman are resolving. But it’s not really a linear process as you well know. The being/non-being is a subtle duality so is also an aspect of unity. Brahman is beyond both.

    I talked about Unity & the 2 stages of Brahman back here:

    The first part can be quite dry and flat, especially after a full unity. This is partly why some never make that step.

    And the whole process can go very deep in our remaining baggage. It can structure our life to face what we’ve been unwilling to or break down what we still hold.

    (laughs) “implausible sounding things” is right. Even some of what I’d consider normal is way out there for some. Learned not to share most of that, though I do have a few friends who can relate.

    Recently, a teacher commented that if you can’t yet describe it, it’s not really it yet. I agree with that in a certain sense – the shift can be there but until it’s clearer, it’s not really embodied yet. That said, it can be useful to hear it described so we can find language.

    My own journey has mostly leaned on Vedic stuff but I have explored a little Zen and I’m currently working on an article about kundalini topics. That took a breakdown of some of my ideas about it.

    I’m driven to share maps and signposts of the path as I found myself with insufficient ones when the process first began. The quality and breadth of material available then was much less.

    I’ve been patient with sharing, drawing it out slowly so I was clearer and more grounded and it was less about me or being in the middle of it. But my process is still writ large here – talking about the 3 grips, then the 4.

    Thanks again for sharing a snippet of your journey. It is such an amazing ride. I was inspired by the superficial ideas of it when I started but had no idea where it would actually take me. Indeed, where hasn’t it. 😉

  7. Davidya says:

    BTW – it also may be common for the initial Brahman shift to occur with God Realization, another subject discussed elsewhere (see Key Posts on the right for links).

    Have no idea how common this is as I know far fewer who have made this shift.

  8. Davidya says:

    If interested, this conversation moved to:

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  11. Davidya says:

    The Consciousness-themed issue has been bumped to April. A differently themed issue was released a few days ago.

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  13. Davidya says:

    The theme of the issue has evolved. I saw the magazine mock-up a few days ago with added images, layout, highlights and so forth. It should be published shortly.

  14. Davidya says:

    Ah, the joys of publishing. The article became too off-theme so mine and a couple of others were bumped to the May issue.
    One day…

  15. Davidya says:

    Saw a draft of the May issue. Much more to theme. A couple of other articles mention cosmic consciousness and witnessing, so I get to put them in context. 😉

  16. Davidya says:

    The May issue is out. I’ll see about a link shortly.

  17. Davidya says:

    The editor invited me to send a link to the magazine for my readers for free. The issue is normally $8.

    My article begins on pg. 104. A PDF with the cover pages and just this article is linked in the Update up top.

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