A Philosophy of Consciousness

A Philosophy of Consciousness

Recently, I ran into the below talk by Swami Sarvapriyananda of Vedanta NY on the philosophy of consciousness found in Eastern thought.

He reviews the major unsolved problems in modern Western philosophy and how most are related to the hard problem of consciousness. A materialist perspective sees only the objective, measurable world as real. It wants to place consciousness as an effect of brain complexity or similar. However, this denies a broad range of subjective experience that this approach cannot explain. Being conscious of being unconscious, for example.

If we try to turn the subject, consciousness, into an object, we create the hard problem. This is because consciousness is not an object, it is pure subjectivity. We cannot use a physical object, like a microscope or EEG machine, to study something non-physical. However, the subject can be studied by subjective means in a systematic manner.

Swami explores this duality of what is an object of experience and what is the subject, the experiencer. If we can experience it, it is an object; it is content in consciousness.

Similarly, he distinguishes between brain (psychical), mind (subtle), and consciousness. Because consciousness can experience brain and mind, they are both objects.

For example, if they offered you a billion dollars but in exchange, you had to be in a coma, would you accept the offer? What would be the point if it couldn’t be experienced?

The philosophy of Nyaya outlines valid means of knowing, including through subjective means. For example, with an effortless meditation, we can all experience consciousness itself within, without content (object). Then we discover it is the true Self, our true nature.

He rightly notes that the arguments don’t hold up through higher perspectives. For example, in Unity stage we discover that the objects of the world arise in consciousness and thus are themselves subjective. Inversely, in Refined Unity, consciousness itself becomes an object that can be experienced. Subject and object have become one and the same and can take either role. The subjective-objective duality has collapsed.

You can see why I speak often of the stages of enlightenment. They set the context in which these perspectives are a lived reality. If we take a philosophical position that is not our experience, we create a disconnect with our lived reality.

Discovering consciousness is key. If this remains a philosophy in the mind, it is only concepts and a mind that thinks it knows something. That’s just content. The subject remains hidden by concepts about it.

To get past that, we first have to recognize the distinction between who we are and what is content. Then we can find consciousness. Or, inversely, we find consciousness and recognize this duality. And then consciousness can know itself through this body-mind.

After the first hour, he opens the floor to discussion. That part is less useful as it gets more into the mind. Philosophy has deep value if it serves our direct experience. But if it serves only mind, it just reinforces ego identification and bondage.

Swami Sarvapriyananda has quite a few talks online. He follows the common interpretation of Vedic literature. In that we differ, as many articles on this blog explore. Too much of the literature is argued by a mind rather than understood by direct experience. This is why you see so many branches and schools of thought.

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  1. don salmon

    Swami Sarvapriyananda is the rare scholar who is capable both of speaking in the scholarly abstractions that appeal to academics and speaking directly from experience as well.

    He’s delightful, and quite funny at times as well. I recall recently seeing a talk in which he describes spending the morning at one conference exploring sunyata, emptiness, formulated at this particular talk as “no self.”. This is framed as the “ultimate Truth” in Buddhism.

    After a few hours of this, he discusses the traditional Advaita Vedanta notion of “all is Self.” He laughs about the extreme (apparent) reversal and then says, “Imagine the whiplash!”

    But he handled it beautifully, concluding, “they’re talking about the same thing.”. Interestingly, I recall many years ago struggling intensely with the same apparent “problem” of no self versus “all is Self,” and one day spontaneously “seeing,” Oh, they’re talking about the same thing (with different emphasis).

    I’ve found that your description of the initial stages of awakening as still being dualistic, and the later stages transcending the subject-object split, to be very helpful – not just intellectually but in terms of direct knowing/feeling as well.

    1. Hi Don
      I agree he has a clear understanding of much of the content. He’s studied a broad range of knowledge and obviously continues to. But there are those key points where common understanding is less helpful. Without suitable means, for example, samadhi is rare and progress much slower. Some come in with sufficient clarity to get to a deep understanding anyway. But can they help others awaken? That is much less common.

      I’ve found the understanding of stages indispensable as it puts these divergent descriptions in context. For example, there are those who do experience the absence of content in consciousness as a void and no-self. And those who experience it as a fullness of Self. Those are indeed the same thing, experienced from different values of Atman and Sattva.

      On the flip side, calling that Brahman is not accurate unless the Brahman shift has happened. The no-thing of Brahman is not that same thing as an empty void of the space of self-aware consciousness. Sounds the same but…

      Thanks for sharing.

  2. Lynette

    I wonder if Swami has experienced any of the stages of consciousness that Maharishi have described, I mean cc, gc, or uc. Can you tell? I have enjoyed Swami’s talks very much. But lately I have stopped listening because I find it to taxing for my mind. Too many concepts.

  3. Sandesh Sheth

    Please help me understand what is happening and why it is happening. Listening to Swami Sarvapriyananda talks causes shifts – these are minimal but I certainly feel them. It is almost like meditation – observation without an observer. And then the observer comes back with trying to understand or rationalize the teachings with experience. This is something that happened to me when I listened to your BATGAP interview and I have listened to it multiple times as well.
    What exactly is happening? I cannot meditate (I tried hundreds of time and have fallen into deep slumber every time or could not do it). But these talks do that.

    1. Hi Sandesh
      I call that resonance. Some people who embody enough presence will resonate with the presence in us, enlivening it. It varies some who we resonate with.

      To be clear, I use “observer” as the witness quality of consciousness. You’re using it to mean what might be called mind awareness. It’s mind that wants to know and rationalize, etc. And it’s mind that takes us out of being simply present. This is its natural tendency. But mind awareness doesn’t resonate with others the way presence does. The latter is more subtle.

      On meditation, it sounds like your understanding is missing the part about purification. When we meditate, the mind and body naturally settle. This gives an opportunity to heal and that often comes up. The purification creates activity in the body or mind, we have thoughts, and then we notice we’re thinking and can return to the practice. They call this the inward and outward strokes of meditation.

      One type of healing is fatigue. Most of us are storing fatigue in the physiology. When the body settles, it takes the opportunity to clear the fatigue and we fall asleep. This is a good thing. If we keep up the practice, we’ll clear that backlog and a much greater clarity will dawn. Of course, it’s good to have regular sleep times and get the rest we need so we’re not adding to it. Then we’re clearer for day-to-day life and in our practice.

  4. Ran into this from an upcoming conference:
    One of the greatest questions we face is the nature of consciousness. Currently, the most widely accepted scientific framework is materialism: the idea that the world around us and everything in it, including ourselves, arises from the interplay of underlying material substances. Within this framework, consciousness is the result of brain processes. Yet, materialist neuroscience has not yet been able to pinpoint consciousness in the brain. Furthermore, the materialist framework does not explain the phenomenon of subjective experience, and leaves no room for human values, including meaning, compassion, and humanity.

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