What Is Consciousness
What Is Consciousness?*
by Richard Smoley**
An excerpt from
The Dice Game of Shiva:
How Consciousness Creates
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.
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.
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.
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
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
*Based on the book The Dice Game of Shiva: How
Consciousness Creates by Universe C 2009 by Richard Smoley. Printed with
permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.
To order this book
from Amazon.com, click here!
**Richard Smoley is the
former editor of Gnosis, editor of the Theosophical Society's Quest
Books, and the executive editor of Quest magazine. You can visit him
An Interview with author Richard Smoley.
The Dice Game of
Shiva -- that's an intriguing title
for a book. What does it mean?
It refers to a Hindu
myth in which the god Shiva plays a game of dice -- essentially a kind of strip
Parcheesi -- with his consort, Parvati. The strange thing is that Shiva always
loses. He loses everything to Parvati, even his clothing, but it doesn't make
any difference to him. He goes off to the forest and lives as a hermit.
Eventually Parvati comes in search of him, and they're reunited in the end.
That's a strange
story. What's it about?
It's about one of the
central issues that has always perplexed philosophers -- the nature of
consciousness. Shiva represents consciousness -- and in the book I define
consciousness as the capacity to relate self and other.
And Parvati? What
does she represent?
experiences -- the totality of the world, inner and outer.
This is getting kind of
abstract. Why should I care about this kind of thing?
Because it's something
that you're doing every second of your life. At the core of your being there is
something that experiences, something that sees. It doesn't do anything
else; it just witnesses. It has no properties, no characteristics other than
this. This is what the mystical traditions call the true Self, the "I," Christ
consciousness, the Atman. This is who you really are.
But we forget this. We
think we are what we see. We become what we behold. And I'm not just talking
about the physical world. You also experience your thoughts and your emotions,
and you mistakenly believe that you are those things. That's what the
mystics call maya, illusion.
Parvati symbolizes all
of your experience, and Parvati always "wins" the game. Why? Because
consciousness in its pure form has no attributes, no qualities; it just sees.
Everything you see, inner and outer, belongs to Parvati, so to speak. So Shiva
always loses the game, and Parvati always wins. But it doesn't matter to Shiva.
In reality he loses nothing.
But how can I not be my
thoughts, my feelings, and so on? Those are what I am.
No, they're not! You can
step back and see them; you can watch them like a film passing before your eyes.
That's the purpose of many -- maybe most -- meditation practices. They're meant to
show you that there's something behind all the junk that passes through your
mind, and that that something is what you really are.
So then everything in the
world is just kind of a film that I'm watching?
You and everybody else.
In each of us there is this true Self, which witnesses. It exists in animals,
plants, even in inanimate matter.
How is that?
Well, I said that
consciousness is the capacity to relate self and other. For
anything to exist at all, it must have some amount of this capacity, however
small. Even a hydrogen atom must somehow be able to "recognize" an oxygen atom
if it is to bond with it to form water. This is not consciousness as we know it
in ourselves, but still it's consciousness of a kind.
Where is God in all
God is, I would say, the
ineffable source out of which this primordial distinction of self and other
arise. So in one sense God is yourself. Isn't that what all the mystical
traditions are saying? Jesus, in the Gospel of John, alludes to this when he
says, "I and the Father are one." Most Christians misunderstand this. They think
that Jesus is talking about himself. But really this "I," this capacity to say "I am," is, so to speak, the point where we connect with God. Haven't we heard
any number of times that one of the most sacred and profound names of God is "I
So why should I pray
Well, I said that God is
the source both of self and other. So we can experience God as
other also. Some theologians take this to the point of saying that God is
"wholly other," but I would say that that's just half of the picture. When you
feel God as other, then you pray to God. When you rest in stillness in
the center of your being, you feel God as Self. We can experience it sometimes
one way, sometimes another.
Are you saying that
Hinduism is the true religion?
I'm saying that at their
core all religions are saying these things. In my previous book Inner
Christianity, I explored these ideas in the language of mystical
Christianity. For the purposes of this book, I found it more helpful to use some
terms and concepts from Eastern religions.
So why isn't all this
a matter of common knowledge?
Religions talk about
this in mythic terms, because if you talk about it discursively, the way we're
doing here, it can be hard to wrap your mind around. Besides, there are certain
dangers in this knowledge.
What are these
If all this hits your
mind in the wrong way, you can come away with the idea that your personal ego,
your little self, is God. This happens sometimes, not only in people who are
certifiably insane, but in certain gurus who have enough charisma to collect
some followers. The gurus are right in a sense -- their "I" is God -- but that's true
of everyone and everything, not just the guru, however advanced he may seem.
On the other hand, there
are also dangers in forgetting these truths, in failing to realize that God is
not only in you, but that which says "I" in you. If you don't remember
this fact, you're cut off from the center of your own being. People in this
situation -- and I would say that this is true of most of us most of the time -- are
weak and susceptible. They, or we, are prone to the mass hypnosis of ordinary
life, in which we place our trust in money, in things, in leaders good and bad.
This trust will inevitably be disappointed sooner or later. As the Bible says,
"Put not your trust in princes."
What's the way out?
Well, the first step is
awakening. Simply becoming aware of this Self in you, this "I" that witnesses.
It doesn't require great mystical powers. Deep down, we all know that there is
something that says "I" in us. And that this something lies deeper than our ego
with its desires and anxieties and agendas.
Some philosophers say
that simply becoming aware of this fact is enough, and at times that's true. But
for most of us need something more, and I would say that a good meditation
practice would be a helpful way of probing deeper into these truths. And there
is also prayer in the more familiar sense, in which we approach God as other.
Of course there's more
to the situation than this. There are questions of cosmic justice, of science
versus spirituality, and there's also the most perplexing issue of
all -- causality -- the issue of what causes what, which has perplexed philosophers
more than practically any other problem they've had to face. In my book I go
into these issues at much greater length. But recognizing the truths I've
sketched out here is, I'm convinced, already a big step.
To order this book
from Amazon.com, click here!