In Nonduality discourse, we are principally interested in the fundamental nature of reality.
The essence of consciousness.
One word for the fundamental nature of reality, is consciousness. To develop the context appropriate understanding of this word, we must consider it as a generic principle. In this contemplation, we are not going to be using the word in the usual sense. In English, notably, there is no word that adequately expresses precisely what we mean by consciousness. So it is first necessary for us to hone our understanding of the word in this context. By consciousness, we mean to speak of the most fundamental principle that the word implies – something we might just as easily call: awareness.
Ordinarilly, in everyday speech, and given the prevailing cultural narrative, consciousness is known as an ‘object’ of discussion. It is granted a variety of qualities. Consciousness is something which individual beings are each presumed to possess; each individual is granted a separate consciousness. Consciousness may be temporarily lost, in the case of sleep, or permanently lost, in the case of death or terminal illness. Consciousness, it is said, may also vary in clarity, as in the first blury moments upon slowly waking from sleep, or the loss of clarity in awareness of a person affected by alcohol or other drugs. Crucially, none of these qualities is applicable to our definition of consciousness.
Our definition of consciousness refers only to that most essential principle which underpins all the other assumed qualities normally associated with the word. At first, this may seem like a peculiarly narrow definition for consciousness. It may perhaps seem that our definition is so restricted, that it plainly leaves nothing left to discuss – that it refers to nothing at all. It may perhaps seem that our definition is so artificial, that there could be no obvious or reasonable basis to adopt such a definition – absent all the qualities we assume essential to our everyday understanding of the word. Nevertheless, there is indeed a facet of the common definition, that we have not yet enumerated.
The essential principle around which our definition of consciousness is centred, can only be illuminated indirectly – for reasons that will shortly be made apparent. Let us use a hypothetical scenario, to make obvious that essential principle of which we speak. Consider a person moderately to severely intoxicated by alcohol. Such a person is experiencing blurred vision, a lack of physical coordination, slurred speech and some difficulty in both understanding and communication. Given the common definition, the consciousness of this person has been significantly affected by alcohol. In our definition, however, the alcohol has had no effect whatsoever.
The key to understanding our definition of consciousness is found in our third-person objective perspective of their hypothetical first-person subjective, inner experience – a kind of thought experiment. Thus, let us first describe their conscious inner experience. Our hypothetical drunk person has the experience of blurred vision, decreased acuity of physical space perception and slow mentations. Moreover, they may lack the meta-cognitive awareness of their condition – constituting what might commonly be referred to as a lowering of inhibitions. Second, let us hone in on the critical point that this hypothetical scenario enables us to see. All these characteristics, just described, are known with perfect and unwavering acuity. Not in the meta-cognitive sense, but, in the manor in which these phenomena can be said to exist. As observers to this thought experiment, we can confidently assert, that these descriptions relate to a real phenomenal subjective experience of our drunk person. We can also confidently assert, that it is unlikely the real phenomenal subjective experience of our drunk person contains much in the way of meta-cognitive awareness – mentations representative of an understanding of their own intoxication. The implication of these assertions is a real phenomenal experience.
The real phenomental experience is, as it is. The lack of personal acuity of the drunk person, is nonetheless known or real, with absolute acuity. If their lack of acuity were not known at all, we would have to assert that the person were unconscious, otherwise there is no way for us to assert a real phenomenal experience on their behalf. Likewise, that it is a specific lack of acuity, and not something else, means that the specifics of this lack of acuity are known, and therefore, that the specifics themselves are known with acuity. Otherwise, if the specific lack of personal acuity was not itself known with acuity, we would not be speaking about that specific lack of personal acuity at all, we would be speaking about something else! To whom, then, is the lack of acuity known with perfect acuity? Reality itself – consciousness itself. It is incidental that by way of our thought experiment, we know it too.
To further elucidate our point, let us consider the unconscious person. Perhaps the drunk person in our hypothetical scenario has had one too many drinks and passed out. In this instance, on our conventional understanding, we might confidentally assert that there is no longer any real phenomenal subjective experience for that person. So, by contrast, we can hopefully make our point clear. In the first scenario, there is a real experience – the experience of what it is like to be severely intoxicated. In the second scenario, there is apparently no experience whatsoever, or at least none with which most of us are familiar. The contrast between these two scenarios should draw our attention toward the subject of our contemplation – what which we are referring to as consciousness.
There is something it is like, to be intoxicated. This principle of subjectivity, whatever it is, is what we mean when we use the word consciousness. We are referring then to the real and substantive existence of subjectivity, the principle by which phenomena are known, and by virtue of this knowing, are asserted to exist.
The fact is, there is something profoundly substantive about consciousness that cannot be directly expressed. As conscious cognisant beings, we have access to this fact if we stop to contrast the reality of our own consciousness with the phenomena it perceives.
Consciousness, in our definition, is in essence a subjective facet of reality which cannot be comprehensively expressed or encapsulated in concepts, symbols, words or language, nor any other phenomenal representation. The comprehensive expression of the subjective is the subjective itself, and nothing else. Even supposing a sufficiently advanced linguistic, cognitive or technological apparatus to represent such qualitative phenomenon, the comprehensive reality is always beyond reach.
There is always the possibility of a more advanced apparatus which provides even greater precision and expressive power with which to provide a more comprehensive representation of any phenomena. Nevertheless, the representation is still itself insufficient to comprehensively express the phenomena, and is itself merely another appearance within the fundamental reality that is consciousness.
The ‘information’ or phenomena of consciousness is not the reality itself. Just as we do not ordinarily attribute consciousness to a pocket calculator, a movie, or the words in the pages of a book. The information we might use to represent the contents of consciousness is always insubstantial in contrast to the reality of the phenomena itself. For instance, there can never be a simulation that is itself conscious. To contemplate as such is to loose sight of the fundamental reality: information is not consciousness, though we might say that consciousness contains information. Consider the reality of the conscious experience of a sunset and a description of the same. The latter will never have the authenticity of the former. All of our representations are merely further appearances – contours or vibrations – within the fabric or substrate of that which we call consciousness.
Some may grant the utility of a certain theoretical model of reality, which supposes that information may become conscious in some sense. Let me be very clear, that is not what we are talking about here. To get mixed up in that kind of idea in this context, is to miss the point. In so doing, one simply (and conveniently) side-steps the fact of consciousness itself.
No matter which way you spin it, there is no denying there is something profoundly real about reality! Whatever consciousness ‘is’, it is the profound basis of reality as we know it.
Reality is consciousness.
Crucially, the essence of what it means to assert reality is inextricable from consciousness, as defined. The reality of any specific phenomena is the principle we are referring to as consciousness. In fact, absent consciousness, in this most generic sense, it is entirely meaningless to speak of existence. To understand this point, let us not forget the essence of our definition – it is not the ordinary personal definition of consciousness. If consciousness, as a principle, were absent, there would be no sentient beings. Absent sentience, there is quite simply, nothing to talk about.
It is also important not to confuse our definition of consciousness with metaphysical speculation. There is a distinction to be made, between the construction of knowledge on the one hand – abstract conceptual theories representative of reality, and the reference to that most fundamental of first principles on the other – the very existence of subjectivity as a principle that we are calling consciousness. No metaphysical speculation or claims are made herein. The intent of this contemplation is merely to ellucidate a self-evident facet of reality, and to give pause to contemplate the significance of that which has been bought to light.
The significant elaboration required, the indirect means of explanation and the immense difficulty in communicating our definition of consciousness, are not incidental. Unlike all other ‘objects’ of intellectual contemplation, consciousness is unique. The principle is unique, because it is the very principle by which the existence of anything, including concepts and mentations, is known. Without consciousness and regardless of our cultural metaphysical speculations and narrative, for all intents and purposes, there can be no contemplation of anything.
Contemplation is itself a phenomenon of consciousness. In this regard, while we may attribute a label to the principle, it is not possible to explain the definition of the label in the usual way. Ordinarily, a definition or explanation of a label or term mandates the elaboration of relationships between other labels or terms, which are themselves representations of other concepts. We do not have that luxury here, because our definition of consciousness refers to that which is the essential principle by which everything else is known. It is, in essence, indistinguishable from what it means to speak of reality. Hence our reliance upon thought experiments to indirectly illuminate our understanding of the word, consciousness. Consciousness itself is not an object, but the fundamental principle by which all objects are known.
Given our developing understanding of consciousness in this generic sense, is it then even reasonable to call it consciousness? Might we not be confusing ourselves, given the more tangible conventional understanding with which most of us are familiar? Undoubtably, the consciousness of which we speak is impersonal and so pure by definition as to have no tangible identifying characteristics of its own, except subjectivity. Though even in this regard, subjectivity is really just a reference to that which we mean by consciousness, albeit by a different name. Meanwhile, our conventional definition of consciousness is distinctly personal and feels inextricable from our identity, with its myriad of identifying characteristics – name, gender, form, beliefs and so on. Nevertheless, none of these identifying characteristics, nor anything else for that matter, could be said to exist in the absence of consciousness. So, our definition of consciousness refers to something of absolute relevance. Without it, there would be nothing to discuss, indeed, nothing at all. There can be nothing more profound than that which in some essential way constitutes the very ground of existence, and the very foundation of sentience.
The relevance of consciousness cannot be overstated. It is of profound relevance to any serious discussion of the nature of whatever we mean by terms like self, reality, society or world. All sane understandings must be grounded in something real, and in a profound sense there is nothing more real than consciousness. Consciousness is the theatre within which entire universes with immense diversity and the most miniscule nuances play themselves out and come in myriad ways to be known. For all practical intents and purposes, the reality of all things is consciousness. From understandings, actions flow, and our narratives are constructed. Therefore, if we possess an understanding that does not do justice to the reality, we are likely to come unstuck. The emphasis in our narratives will be mistaken, and the impact of our actions will deviate from our expectations so as to be profoundly disturbing.
In this way, our understanding of consciousness, as defined, is of prime importance to any serious discussion of reality: consciousness is reality.
The significance, mystery and pragmatic implications of the essence of this contemplation is something I may attempt to address in future articles!