What Is Consciousness?*
by Richard Smoley**
An excerpt from
The Dice Game of Shiva:
How Consciousness Creates by Universe
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.
*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 online at http://innerchristianity.com/.
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?
What consciousness 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 this?
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 am"?
So why should I pray to God?
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 dangers?
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.
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