The first thing I want to say, and I’m afraid this is going to be a little disappointing to you, is that we are going to hear and speak a great many words this week about the nature of Consciousness, and not a single one of them is going to be absolutely true.
If we wanted to speak the truth about the nature of Consciousness, experience or reality, we would have to remain silent. That is why it’s said that the highest teaching is silence.
However, very few of us are sufficiently mature to intuit the reality of Consciousness from silence. Therefore, the spiritual traditions have elaborated various paths, various skilful means, tailored to various levels of our understanding. So it is in that spirit that I speak of the nature of Consciousness.
The first thing I would like to do is to give a definition of Consciousness. Of course, Consciousness cannot really be defined, but this would be good provisional definition of Consciousness: Consciousness is that in which all experience appears, that with which all experience is known and that out of which all experience is made.
What do I mean by ‘experience’ in this context? Anything objective: thoughts, memories, ideas, concepts, feelings, sensations of the body, sights, sounds, tastes, textures, smells, and so on.
All of these appear in something. That something is what we call Consciousness or Awareness. The common name for it is ‘I’, or myself. The religious name for it is God’s infinite Being. But all these refer to that in which experience appears, with which it is known and, ultimately, out of which it is made.
Now, even from a conventional point of view our thoughts and feelings appear within ourself. What is not so obvious is that the experience of the body, which we experience mostly as sensation, also appears in ourself, that is, in Consciousness. And what is even less clear is that our perceptions — for instance, sounds and sights — also appear in the same Consciousness, or the same field, in which our thoughts, feelings and sensations appear.
I just want to pause here and make sure you are really connecting with what I’m suggesting, not just intellectually agreeing or disagreeing.
Take a thought, or allow a thought or a series of thoughts to appear, and notice that those thoughts appear in some kind of field. They appear in something, so let us say they appear in space. Consciousness is not actually a space — in fact, it has no dimensions — but let us provisionally give Consciousness a spacelike or fieldlike quality, and see that whatever thoughts are appearing are appearing in this spacelike, aware field.
We should close our eyes for a few minutes to do this. Establish again that your thoughts appear in an aware, spacelike field. Now, listen to whatever sounds are present, the sounds of people talking or any other sounds that are appearing.
Now, with your attention, go back and forth between the thought and the sound. Ask yourself the question, ‘Does my attention ever leave the field of Awareness?’
Notice that the sound appears in exactly the same field that the thought appears in.
Conventional thinking would have us believe that the thought appears inside what I am and the sound appears outside what I am. But if we look for a line that divides the two in our actual experience, it is never found. Just as a line is on the map but never in the territory, so the line is in belief but never in experience.
Now, instead of just allowing your attention to move between the thought and the sound, allow your attention to go wherever it wants. You can keep your eyes closed if you want to, but feel free to open them. Just allow your attention to range freely over the entire realm of your experience, and have this question in mind: ‘Does my attention ever leave Consciousness? Does my attention ever leave the field of Awareness?’
In fact, you could play devil’s advocate with yourself. Try to leave the field of Awareness. Try to come in contact with or attend to something that appears just outside Consciousness.
And don’t just refer to your current experience: imagine and remember all possible experiences. You could imagine, for instance, that you had just landed on the moon. A completely new set of perceptions appear to you. Do those perceptions appear in Consciousness or outside Consciousness?
Imagine you are a brain surgeon, doing your first brain operation. That brain is a series of perceptions and sensations. Do any of those perceptions or sensations appear outside Consciousness?
Imagine you are deeply depressed. Does that experience appear outside Consciousness? Does your attention have to venture to a place outside Consciousness in order to come in contact with or know the feeling of depression?
See simply and clearly that nobody has ever, nor could anyone ever, come in contact with anything outside Awareness or Consciousness.
* * *
Our entire world culture is founded on a single belief, the belief that there is a substance that exists outside of Consciousness, called ‘matter’. Matter is believed to be the fundamental reality of all existence, and Consciousness is believed to derive somehow from this substance of matter. Whether we realise it or not, almost all our thoughts, feelings, activities and relationships are founded upon this primary assumption.
Strangely, the idea of matter was invented a few thousand years ago, and we have been looking for it ever since. Scientists are still looking for it — they haven’t found it! Many scientists believe that it’s just a matter of a few more years and a few more million dollars until we eventually find this stuff called matter. And philosophers have been thinking about the nature of matter and its relation to Consciousness for over two thousand years.
The fact that nobody once, for a moment, has ever glimpsed this substance seems not to have had too much impact on the debate. It’s like spending centuries discussing the eating habits of the Loch Ness Monster. The fact that nobody has ever seen the Loch Ness Monster is considered a detail and seems to have been overlooked. It is believed that one day we will find it, but in the meantime let’s continue to discuss its eating habits. That is how absurd the debate about matter is!
The second most important unanswered question that Peter mentioned last night is the ‘hard problem of Consciousness’. The question, ‘How can Consciousness be derived from matter?’ is a pseudo-question, a non-existent question. Did anyone else notice the contradiction in those two questions? The first question was, ‘What is the nature of the universe?’ and the second question was, ‘How is Consciousness derived from matter?’ Is the contradiction in those two questions not staring us in the face?
In the first most important unanswered question, ‘What is the nature of the universe?’, we acknowledge that we don’t know what the nature of the universe is. In the second question, ‘How is Consciousness derived from matter?’ we make a huge leap of faith. We presume this substance called matter, having already acknowledged in the previous question that we have no idea what the universe is made of, and then we ask how Consciousness is derived from it.
Even in the first question there is a subtle presumption, which turns out in the end to be a belief. In fact, it is a religion, the religion of materialism. It asks, ‘What is the universe made of?’ but nobody has ever found ‘the universe’. Has anybody here ever had an experience of the universe as thought conceives it? (Silence.)
What are we exploring when we try to explore the nature of the universe? Are we trying to explore something we don’t experience? All we know of a universe is a series of fleeting perceptions, and perceptions appear in Consciousness. Therefore, until we know the nature of the Consciousness in which our perceptions appear, it is not possible to know anything that is true about perceptions themselves, let alone to know anything true about the universe.
I believe that one day the highest science will no longer be considered the science of physics; it will be the new science of Consciousness. Until we know the nature of Consciousness, it is not possible to know the nature of anything that appears within it. Until we know the nature of the Knowing with which we know our experience, it is not possible to know anything true about the known.
We might ask why Consciousness is a more legitimate field of study than the universe. Is there anybody here who is not aware at the moment? (Silence.) OK, that’s the answer. When I asked, ‘Has anybody here ever experienced the universe as it is conceived by thought?’ there was a long silence; not a single person put their hand up. In other words, we never experience this universe that we are studying. But when I asked the question, ‘Is anybody here not aware?’ nobody raised their hand. Everyone is aware. Awareness is our experience.
Therefore, Awareness is a legitimate field of study, simply because it is experienced. Everybody here is knowing or aware of their experience. What is the nature of the Knowing with which experience is known? That is the interesting question. Until we know the nature of the Knowing with which our experience is known, or until we know the nature of the Consciousness in which our experience appears, we cannot know anything that is true about the mind, the body or the world.
from his talk at Titignano, Italy 2015