The Non-Dual Revolution, Chapter I: Defining “Consciousness” the Word
Unraveling the Concept & the Experience
We are on the cusp of a revolution, one as profound as anything that has happened to humankind, or indeed with Life itself. It is the Non-Dual Revolution. It is the giving birth, in Consciousness, of a whole new way of living, a new reality. It's not a "new age", and has nothing to do with eh New Age movement, or any belief system whatsoever. This book will lay the groundwork for the vision.
But first, we must set some groundwork.
For example, how do we communicate?
1 The Importance of Defining "Consciousness" the Word
It is often expressed that consciousness can't be defined, contained or captured in linguistic concepts. And while it’s true that certain experiences are indescribable and beyond definition in that sense—particularly those that we call ineffable, such as the mystical (“The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao”)—nevertheless we can make a distinction between the experience itself that is being pointed to, and the pointer—in this case, a word—that is being used to point to the experience.
Getting Apples and Oranges to Play Nice
It is essential, if we as communicative agents are to have a productive dialogue, that we define terms that are ambiguous or otherwise problematic. The reason it is essential to define such words is to avoid going around in circles, with one side of the dialogue operating under the assumption they are talking about apples, while the other party assumes they are talking about oranges. A fair amount of common ground must be established to make any headway whatsoever. Assuming good will and openness on the part of the communicators, agreeing on a definition of a term or terms can help in making progress in discussions.
2 The Problem with Ambiguous Terms
Indeed, words can be problematic for a number of reasons: they can be vague, under debate, or a word can be used in different ways by different speakers under different circumstances. They can also refer to phenomena that are not well understood, therefore calling the language itself into question. The word “consciousness” is one of those problematic words, and it is problematic for just about all of the reasons mentioned: vagueness, a debatable concept, has variable meanings, is a misunderstood experience and a questionable linguistic expression... and probably some more reasons I haven't thought of.
Some philosophers, scientist, writers, and other thinkers, will therefore avoid using the word "consciousness" altogether—which is a shame, given the potential richness available—or even claim it doesn’t really refer to anything at all! But I think some advance can be made by using a simple definition, and one that is grounded in the clarity around how it functions as a word.
3 The Function of the Word “Consciousness”
The word “consciousness” (and some of its synonyms like “awareness”*) has two aspects that are not just important, but essential, to point out.
The first aspect is that, as a pointer to something, this particular word and concept do not point to an external object, like the word “chair” does, for example. In fact it’s not even pointing to what are called “subtle” objects. Subtle objects are objects of the mind, such as the idea of a chair, the concept of liberty, or an imagined pink elephant. They cannot be found in the world of intersubjective experience, therefore are called “subtle”.
4 What Does “Consciousness” Point To?
If the word and concept of “consciousness” do not point to a mental, subtle object, then what does it point to? Some writers and teachers have gone to great lengths to describe this and talk about it, since it seems like something that resists comprehension by most listeners. However I think we can make a simple pointer and leave it at that, and elaborate further down the road as much as we want.
The simple point is that the word “consciousness” points to the absolutely non-objective, first-person experience of having any experience at all, such as of mental objects. Yes, even mental objects. We must define it thus, as being prior, so to speak, of mental objects, of "subtle" experiences—of any kind whatsoever, including altered mental states—otherwise we are lost in a cloud of confusion about what we are talking about or pointing towards, and will fill endless volumes talking about “mind stuff”, mental phenomena, when really we are wanting to get clear on consciousness.
The Tower of Consciousness Blabber
In fact, this is one of the reason there is so much confusion and chaos in the so-called "spiritual" communities, and the scientific and philosophical communities as well. And I would venture to say, why some feel they have not "made it" (to enlightenment, or some state, whatever the presume they are seeking after) or had the right kind of experience. People are using words without ever bothering to define them clearly, or really even think deeply about them, or agree on terms, and meanwhile listening to all kinds of teachers, pundits and experts and media using the word in multifarious ways, either using words in unique ways, or unclear themselves about what they are really talking about.
Getting Down to Brass Consciousness Tacks
So to reiterate, this aspect of how the word “consciousness” functions is a simple pointer to this simple first-hand subjective experience of what it is like** to be experiencing anything whatsoever, without referring to any contents at all. Just the simple fact of awareness. Experientially, it’s what is reading these words right now, but without any concept brought in about that that is: we are leaving it open. We are simply laying out the ground rules, or ground conditions of this investigation, without prejudice, with no prejudging or assuming anything. This does not specify any content, any mental objects, or any perception whatsoever, just the raw fact of experience itself. (Some call this “Being” or “Existence”, but let’s not complicate the discussion by bringing in more terms for now, even if they are connected in an essential way).
5 The Two Essential Aspects of the How the Word "Consciousness" Functions
What was laid out in the previous paragraph is the first aspect of this unique concept, “consciousness,” that is worthy and essential to lay out on the table for viewing: the “what it is pointing to” aspect. In this case, the raw fact of experiencing anything at all.
The second aspect worthy of note is a unique feature or function of the word “consciousness” that is rarely discussed (as far as I know): the word is both experienced in its referent, and refers to that referent. It’s an odd or subtle thing if you think about it: the word “consciousness” is appearing in consciousness and pointing to itself, not as an object but as an experience. Very unusual, and kind of mind-bending. The more you try and visualize it, the more it’s like some kind of weird sculpture, akin to a Möbius strip or a Klein bottle.
6 The Groundwork for Discussing Consciousness
With those two aspects of the word and concept pointed out, we have a clearer groundwork to begin discussions. Now, I realize there is going to be debate and misunderstanding on some of these issues, such as the common assumption that one cannot have consciousness or awareness without awareness of something, of the objects or contents of consciousness. Can one be aware without being aware of some thing?
Consciousness in Deep Sleep and While in States of "Unconsciousness"
However I would ask you to look in your own experience, and consider that one can be in deep sleep, not be aware of anything, and wake up feeling refreshed, knowing one was somehow experiencing a sleep state, even if no objects of consciousness were brought back from it: no memories. In other words, lack of memory does not prove there was no consciousness. It also does not prove there was. It’s a 50-50 bet. In other words, keep your mind open about this, readers, if you don't know.
Have you ever wondered what the old Zen masters were trying to point to when they said, “What did your face look like before your parents were born?”. This is not some trivial matter, come kind of cultural meme from spiritual culture.
Isn't it interesting that we have arrived at the opposite conclusion—namely that there is no such thing as unconsciousness—from many modern philosophers who claim there is no such thing as consciousness, or that the word has no real referent, is a "category error", or should not be used.
However, it seems logical to me, from the fact that one is aware of the transition from a sleep state (any kind of sleep state) to a waking state, or from unconsciousness to consciousness of anesthesia, that there is consciousness all along; otherwise one could not be aware of it. It is not my experience that consciousness suddenly blinks into existence. On the contrary, time is experienced within consciousness. It makes no logical sense whatsoever, that there could be awareness of one's own awareness while one is unaware. How can there be consciousness of unconsciousness? This is neither a logical assumption nor an empirical observation. We have to come to the conclusion, via reason and experience, that there is no such thing as unconsciousness, despite the language, the word we have.
Isn't it interesting that we have arrived at the opposite conclusion from many modern philosophers (the academic kind) who claim there is no such thing as consciousness, or that the word has no real referent, is a "category error", or should not be used.
7 Consciousness and Unconsciousness
The only way consciousness could suddenly blink into existence, if one were to conflate mind and consciousness (content with container, movie with screen, gold ring with the gold it is made of). See the section below on Mind & Consciousness.
Entertainingly, this conflation between contents and container is commonly takes the form in the culture of, for example, science fiction movies, where a robot suddenly becomes “sentient” when the programmers inject just the right, complex program. This points up another definition we need to lay out: the distinction between sentience and consciousness.
Sentience refers to the behavior of a body or other object as viewed from the outside. Consciousness is the “first-person” so-to speak (though it’s really before the person is perceivable), 100% subjective point of view (not subjective in the psychological sense but the absolute sense). This issue is discussed in another article: AI & Sentience Versus Consciousness
8 The Blurring of “Mind” and “Consciousness”
Another issue that is likely to come under debate is the common blurring of the concepts of “mind” and “consciousness”. This discrimination is also essential, but unfortunately is rarely made. (I wrote about this in an article here). In fact much of modern philosophy, science, psychology and popular media discussion assumes that consciousness is mind-like.
Daniel Dennet’s entire philosophical project is founded on the idea that consciousness is simply the re-writing of mental contents. His whole career would be called into question if such a fundamental discrimination were made.
9 The Role of Clarity in Understanding Consciousness
I’m not here to destroy careers – in fact, I think Dennet is a wonderful writer, even if a little confused – I simply enjoy writing and seeing things with clarity. That’s all. Maybe it can be of use to someone too.