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What Is Consciousness?

by Richard Smoley

Based on the book The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates by Universe © 2009 by Richard Smoley. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.

We’ve been hearing a lot about consciousness these days. Scientists are trying to take it apart; magazines are reporting on it; theorists of all kinds are trying to figure out how it arises out of the brain.

Unfortunately, you could read quite a bit about this subject without going away any wiser. In a recent issue of Scientific American, neuroscientists Christof Koch and Susan Greenfield write, "Neuroscientists do not yet understand enough about the brain’s inner workings to spell out exactly how consciousness arises from the chemical and electrical activity of neurons." In fact, you could read quite a bit about consciousness without ever learning exactly what it is at all.

All this suggests that the current approach to the subject is somehow misguided. I think we can put it back on track with an extremely simple but fertile definition: Consciousness is what relates self to other. In terms of human thought, this is obvious. Knowing that I’m present in my study, sitting at a desk in front of a computer, is essential to my being conscious here and now. If I were utterly unaware of these things, I wouldn’t be conscious at all.

At the same time, there are many different levels of consciousness. While dreaming, you aren’t aware of the physical world, but in a sense you are still aware: there is the you that is a character in the dream, set off against other people and things in it. This isn’t waking consciousness, but still it’s consciousness of a kind. If we go further into dreamless sleep, there is apparently no consciousness at all — and yet below the surface the distinction of self and other does remain. After all, what’s the most universally prescribed remedy for illness? Sleep. That’s because sleep helps the "self" of the body fight off the "other" of the pathogens.

We can go further. Anyone with even the slightest experience of animals knows that they too are capable of relating self and other. Dogs and cats have emotional lives that are enough like our own so that we can relate to them fairly easily. What about more primitive creatures, going down as far as plants and protozoans? Their fierce attachment to life shows that they too have some sense of themselves over and against an external world.

Where, then, do we draw the line? At inanimate things? Even they have a sense of self and other. The great inventor Thomas Edison once said, "I do not believe that matter is inert, acted upon by an outside force. To me it seems that every atom is possessed by a certain amount of primitive intelligence. Look at the thousand of ways in which atoms of hydrogen combine with those of other elements, forming the most diverse substances. Do you mean to say that they do this without intelligence?"

In other words, a hydrogen atom "knows" how to recognize an oxygen atom and, under certain circumstances, how to combine with it to form water. It perceives something outside of it and relates to it; it’s conscious in a very basic sense. If an atom could not, as it were, draw some kind of line between itself and what is not itself, it couldn’t exist. In fact, nothing can exist without the capacity to relate self and other. Understanding this, we can see how consciousness creates the world.

In a way, the idea that consciousness is everywhere and in everything is disturbing. It makes us humans seem less privileged and unique. On the other hand, human consciousness becomes less baffling if we see it not as something sprung mysteriously out of nowhere but as a stage on a vast continuum. This in turn may help us feel less isolated from the rest of the universe.

You may be saying to yourself, "This is all well and good, but why should I care? What does this have to do with me and my life?" Actually it has a great deal to do with you and your life. In fact it’s the central thing that many spiritual traditions are trying to teach. Somewhere deep inside of you, behind all your sensations and thoughts and ideas and agendas, there is something that says "I."

But you have to realize one additional thing. This "I" is not what you think it is. This is why many spiritual teachers say that we live in illusion. You think you are your thoughts and feelings and sensations. But you’re not any of these things. How do you know? Because you can see them. (This is the goal of many meditation practices.) And if you can see them, as if from a distance, this must mean that the real you is somewhere and something else entirely.

The real you is the silent watcher within, the Self that sees the "other" of the outside world — as well as the inner world of your mind. This is a profound realization, and there are many dimensions to it, but if you nurture it, it can lead you to inner freedom.

Richard Smoley is the author of The Dice Game of Shiva and five other books. He’s a former editor of Gnosis, editor of the Theosophical Society’s Quest Books, and the executive editor of Quest magazine. You can visit him online at http://innerchristianity.com/.



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