Q. 354 – Consciousness and reality

Q: I have an odd question, a question that I am not even sure how to formulate, it concerns consciousness. Why does Advaita philosophy insist on calling the ultimate reality consciousness? The word consciousness implies intelligence and thought – how do we know that anything outside of brains is in any way conscious?  Does this mean that physical reality amounts to the “thoughts” of this consciousness? Can the transcendent consciousness send messages to an embodied consciousness? 

 I know that an advaitin will say that there is only a non-dual reality but I mean this (however unreal or relative a reality my individual reality may be from an ‘ultimate’ perspective’) in much the same way that, until you received this e-mail from me, you were not aware of any ‘message’ or meaning from me.

  If I see a figure in clouds or a face in some wood-grain, should I see this as information with meaning? Does the consciousness ‘behind’ or ‘underneath’ everything communicate meaning with physical events (pictures, or ‘my thoughts’ , or even ambiguous hand-writing!) the way we normally communicate meaning with words and concepts? In other words–if the entire universe is consciousness, can anything be truly mindless or meaningless?

 Surely it is the case that in our present scientific understanding a molecule by itself does not display the characteristics we associate with a mind. Does this then imply that the ultimate reality or “consciousness”, when ‘objectified’ as a physical thing, is essentially mindless until such time that it evolves Darwinian style to achieve a mind or self-consciousness? It does not make sense to me that I should assume that something like a mind could exist without some kind of evolution. In which case positing the existence of some other prior consciousness seems pointless, it only complicates what seems a simpler solution–mindless processes plus evolution eventually produces minded behaviors and consciousness.

Answers are provided by: Ted, Ramesam, Martin and Dennis.

A (Ted):
Q: I have an odd question, a question that I am not even sure how to formulate, it concerns consciousness. Why does Advaita philosophy…

 Ted:  Advaita, or non-duality, is not a philosophy.  It is the nature of reality.  I’m assuming that by Advaita you are referring to Vedanta.  But neither is Vedanta a philosophy.  A philosophy is something cooked up by human beings.  In other words, it is a conjecture or set of conjectures about the life, the world, the universe, an ultimate source or cause, and the laws that govern creation.  It is an attempt to explain how things came to be, why things are the way they are, and what might be the possible reason or purpose for the cosmic drama.

 Though Vedanta does address and offer explanations regarding these issues, it is not simply a theory that someone thought up and convinced others to buy into.  It is revealed wisdom based on the meditative insights had by thousands of seekers over a long period of time.  Over the years, these insights were thoroughly vetted and purified of all traces of personal bias, opinion, interpretation, and belief.  Only the knowledge universally imbibed from such insights remains.  As a result of this process, Vedanta stands as a gleaming gem of wisdom that reflects only the essential truth of reality free of all personal slants.  It is for this reason that Vedanta can be trusted.  Self-knowledge, the essence of Vedanta, belongs to no one in particular.  Moreover, it is not a set of ideas that one has to learn and remember.  It is the truth of one’s own being and can be verified through inquiry into one’s own previously unexamined, or erroneously understood, experience.

 Though it may initially require a leap of faith to make this inquiry – a leap that is, I might add, not altogether irrational since Vedanta is a tradition with a 5000-year-old track record that has set countless seekers free – one’s own analysis, provided one is qualified to make the inquiry and is guided by a qualified teacher, will yield the knowledge that will render faith a moot point.

 Q:  …insist on calling the ultimate reality consciousness? The word consciousness implies intelligence and thought, how do we know that anything outside of brains is in any way conscious?

 Ted:  You are confusing consciousness with the subtle body (sukshma sharira), in which is housed the mind, intellect, and ego.

 The way we in the West normally think of consciousness does indeed imply intelligence and thought, the functions performed by the mind, intellect, and ego, but this is not the implication of the word “consciousness” as used in Vedanta.  According to Vedanta, consciousness is synonymous with being, existence, or “is-ness.”  Consciousness is self-evident, self-revealing.  It doesn’t need a mind to know itself. 

 Actually, “knowing” is a tricky word to denote consciousness’s awareness of itself.  We tend to think of knowing in terms of objective knowledge.  In other words, our idea of knowing is in terms of a subject, which is usually conceived of as the mind-body-sense complex or apparent individual person we believe ourselves to be, knowing an object, which is conceived of as any object, idea, or experience “outside” ourselves.  From the point of view of consciousness, however, there is no “outside.”  Consciousness is not limited to the apparent individual person we take ourselves to be.  In fact, the apparent individual person, along with all the thoughts and emotions supposedly “within” the individual, is only an object appearing in consciousness.  What’s more, given the non-dual nature of reality, which is nothing other than consciousness, all objects appearing “within” consciousness are actually nothing other than consciousness itself.  Hence, consciousness does not need an object within itself in order to know itself.

 In fact – better brace yourself for this one – the apparent individual is actually nothing more than an insentient mechanism consisting of a gross, subtle, and causal body.  Though it is rather easy to realize that we are not the gross, physical body, it is a bit more challenging to accept that the mind is actually insentient.  Only when the machinery of the mind is illumined by consciousness does it perform its functions and generate thoughts and responses to those thoughts.  So really the knowledge of objects is only a matter of consciousness “knowing” these objects – which, again, are only forms of consciousness itself, much like the objects in dreams are only forms of consciousness – through the vehicle of the subtle body/mind mechanism.  Take consciousness away and no objects will be known, for all objects will cease to appear.

 Consciousness, however, cannot be “taken away.”  As the essence of existence itself, consciousness cannot cease to exist.  Even when all appearances – gross and subtle objects – cease, as they do in nirvikalpa samadhi, a thought-free meditative state, and deep sleep, consciousness remains.  If it did not, how would you know upon awakening that you had enjoyed dreamless sleep?

 Perhaps the trickiest aspect of understanding consciousness, however, is the fact that consciousness is not an object.  Consciousness is simply the awareness in which all objects appear.  Like space, though it is all-pervasive (i.e. non-dual), it is essentially attributeless.  Hence, consciousness cannot be known in the way that objects are known.  The mind, which is a property of the apparent individual, can only know objects appearing within it.  Because the entire mind-body-sense complex is only an object appearing in consciousness, however, the mind is incapable of seeing or knowing that which is subtler than itself.

 Though forms appear within and are made of consciousness, those forms are fundamentally nothing other than consciousness itself and, thus, are not really forms in the sense of being independent or self-existent entities.  There is nothing other than consciousness, and thus in reality no subject-object relationship actually obtains. 

 Conscious simply is.  It “knows” itself because it is itself.

 Q:  Does this mean that physical reality amounts to the “thoughts” of this consciousness?

 Ted:  Yes, though consciousness is not a thinker.  Consciousness is the “light” in which the furniture of thoughts appear, so to speak.  The mind is a thought-generating mechanism.  When it is “charged” by consciousness, thoughts manifest.

 Q:  Can the transcendent consciousness send messages to an embodied consciousness?

 Ted:  Consciousness is not a giant person with some grand agenda.  It doesn’t send messages. 

 Also, think about it.  Since from its point of view, if we want to think of it in personified terms, nothing exists other than itself, to whom would it send the messages?  And since there is no place it is not, where exactly would it send them?  Moreover, since it is everything that is, it is whole, complete, perfectly full, and thus wholly satisfied.  Why, therefore, would it feel the need to communicate messages?  The only reason we communicate within the context of the apparent reality is to try to acquire, achieve, attain, or accomplish something we feel we lack.  But since consciousness lacks nothing, it has no need to transact business, so to speak.

 Q:  I know that an Advaitan will say that there is only a non-dual reality but I mean this (however unreal or relative a reality my individual reality may be from an ‘ultimate’ perspective’) in much the same way that until you received this e-mail from me you were not aware of any ‘message’ or meaning from me. If I see a figure in clouds or a face in some wood-grain should I see this as information with meaning?

 Ted:  Actually, all objects and experiences are value neutral.  All are part of what Vedanta calls Ishvara srishti, or God’s creation, which is pure sattva.  It is the apparent individual who gives the creation meaning by superimposing its own likes and dislikes, desires and fears, upon the creation.  This is called jiva srishti, or the individual’s creation. 

 Often, people think that if creation is nothing other than consciousness and I am consciousness, then the creation is nothing other than a projection of my own mind.  This is a mistaken conclusion drawn from the point of view of the apparent individual.  It is true that all is a projection of consciousness, but consciousness is far more expansive than the limited scope of the apparent individual.  The limited individual, don’t forget, is simply one of the innumerable objects appearing in consciousness.

 At any rate, it is the apparent individual who gives meaning to objects.  So you can see anything you wish in any object.  Actually, your vasanas, your preferences and predilections, or likes and dislikes, desires and fears, formed as a result of your past experiences will color your interpretation of whatever object you encounter, so it is actually the vasanas that are “sending” or “receiving” (depending on how you want to look at it) the messages.

 This is why all experience is suspect.  Rather than seeing things as they are, rather than seeing the true nature of the apparent reality, the vasanas, which are the offspring of ignorance (i.e. the deluding power of Maya), causes us to interpret our experience in terms of our deluded conditioning.

 Though our interpretations of objects and experiences – i.e. the “messages” we receive from them – might give us glimpses into a more expansive or substantial aspect of existence and inspire us to continue our spiritual quest, the only real message to be taken from any objective encounter is that its true nature is consciousness and that no objective form is capable of giving me what I already have, what I already am.  Though all objects depend upon me – not the individual I take myself to be, mind you, but me as limitless awareness/consciousness – I do not depend upon them.  Objects come and go, yet I remain ever me.  And ever free.

 This understanding is moksha, or liberation, the ultimate endgame, so to speak.

 Q:  Does the consciousness ‘behind’ or ‘underneath’ everything communicate meaning with physical events (pictures or ‘my thoughts’ or even ambiguous hand-writing!) the way we normally communicate meaning with words and concepts? In other words–if the entire universe is consciousness can anything be truly mindless or meaningless?

 Ted:  Yes, most of creation is mindless.  Only sentient beings have a subtle body, or mind, and in most of those it is only rudimentarily developed.  Plants, insects, and animals have varying degrees of intelligence, but none are capable of self-reflection.  Only human beings think in terms of self-improvement and self-realization.

 Q:  Surely it is the case that in our present scientific understanding a molecule by itself does not display the characteristics we associate with a mind.

 Ted:  This is true.

 Q:  Does this then imply that the ultimate reality or “consciousness” when ‘objectified’ as a physical thing is essentially mindless until such time that it evolves Darwinian style to achieve a mind or self-consciousness?

 Ted:  Vedanta accepts Darwinian evolution as a valid possibility, for no one really knows how things evolved or came to be in their present state.  But the essential point here is that while consciousness can manifest itself as insentient forms and can thus be mindless, it never loses its essential nature as consciousness.

 In order to understand this point, it is necessary to understand the concept of upadhi.  An upadhi is a limiting adjunct.  In other words, it is a conditioning factor whose influence is apparently assumed by the object of its influence.  For example, if a red rose were set next to a clear crystal and I were to ask you what color the crystal was, you would say red.  Though the crystal has no color itself, it appears as red because of the influence of the rose.

 Basically, the gross and subtle substance of any object, including the mind-body-sense complex, is an upadhi that makes pure consciousness appear to be a particular object.  So while consciousness is the fundamental “substance” of all objects, it never actually becomes or transforms into something other than itself.

 Remember, however, that though we might say it is the source of sentiency, consciousness itself is not a sentient object – i.e. a person endowed with a mind – that knows itself as an object.  The self-consciousness experienced by the apparent person is simply the functioning of the mechanism of the mind when illumined by consciousness.  In this sense, yes, consciousness is essentially mindless until such time that it evolves a mind through which the apparent individual can experience objects and eventually make inquiry into and realize its true identity as limitless consciousness, which is ironically a matter of consciousness coming to know itself by means of “seeing” its reflection in the mirror of a pure mind – i.e. understanding its true nature through the vehicle of the mind.

 Q:  It does not make sense to me that I should assume that something like a mind could exist without some kind of evolution. In which case positing the existence of some other prior consciousness seems pointless, it only complicates what seems a simpler solution–mindless processes plus evolution eventually produces minded behaviors and consciousness.

 Ted:  Perhaps the mind evolved, or maybe the entire creation was projected intact as it is.  Who knows?  But either way there is no prior or other consciousness that evolved or projected it.  Consciousness is non-dual.  It is solely existent.  The modern scientific view, as mentioned earlier, is that the subtle body – i.e. the mind-intellect-ego mechanism – is consciousness.  Thus, it is said that consciousness was created by or evolved out of some prior source.  But this is a misunderstanding.  The subtle body is simply an appearance in consciousness.  Whether it appears (i.e. waking and dreaming states) or does not appear (nirvikalpa samadhi and deep sleep states), consciousness always is.

 In other words, you always are.

 And this, according to Vedanta, is the most important message.

A (Ramesam): You have here a big tangled up skein, knotted and twisted, of not one but several strands!

You have jumbled the theories and concepts from Evolutionary Psychology, biological evolution, molecular evolution, psychology, neurology, epistemology and philosophy with some models and metaphors of advaita. 

It is pretty well accepted that any of the scientific disciplines are far from having reached the Final truth. All branches of science are still investigative paths.  Just as by combining even a hundred partially cooked items you cannot have a full cooked meal, you cannot expect to reach the final conclusive truth by merely mixing the concepts from a host of scientific fields.

That being the position, if you say assertively that, “It does not make sense to me that I should assume that something like a mind could exist without some kind of evolution. In which case positing the existence of some other prior consciousness seems pointless,…”, there is hardly anything to say.

But if your query is more in the spirit of ‘knowing’, is an inquiry into, what Truth can possibly be, we can dialogue. And I write here from such a stand.

Let us at the outset declare unambiguously that Advaita does NOT establish and handover a final Truth, with the words, “Here it is, accept it and follow it.”

Advaita points to certain lapses in the normal way of our cognition of objects in our day to day transactional world and how we developed certain structures of belief without questioning. We normally assume that there is a world out there, and we have a body and brain here, there is a mind in the brain and consciousness is in the mind. We take this pecking order of a universe – body and brain – mind – consciousness as the reality.

Suppose it is wrong? Suppose the reality is just the reverse of it?  Suppose it is Consciousness first and the order is then mind and then brain-body and a world? We think that the seven billion of us are seeing and living in one world. Suppose it is actually one Consciousness living through seven billion of us and looking at seven billion worlds?

Advaita does not prove anything. It accepts that what is Real cannot be proved convincingly to your mind. So it gives an alternate theory, offers some investigative tools, much the same way as scientific methods, and asks you to find out the Truth by yourself. So Advaita is an inquiry based philosophy. It is NOT a bundle of conclusions or concepts.

Q:  “The word consciousness implies intelligence and thought, …”

A: On what basis do you say that? The word Consciousness means just being conscious of, aware of. You may be aware of things. You may be aware of thoughts.  What you are aware of is immaterial.

Q:  “…how do we know that anything outside of brains is in any way conscious?”

There are many assumptions in that question.  You think that there is a ‘we’ (or You or I) who is aware, it is the brain that is aware and conscious etc.

Is it not an unverified assumption that there is a “we” or “I” here? Are you not assuming that it is the brain that knows? What proof do we have for all this?

Q:  “Does this mean that physical reality amounts to the “thoughts” of this consciousness? Can the transcendent consciousness send messages to an embodied consciousness?”

Again assumptions, assumptions — unsupported, unverified.

Q:  “I know that an advaitin will say that there is only a non-dual reality..”

The Advaitin will also say you have to investigate it yourself. It cannot be bequeathed to you.

Q:    “.. but I mean this( however unreal or relative a reality my individual reality may be from an ‘ultimate’ perspective’) in much the same way that until you received this e-mail from me you were not aware of any ‘message’ or meaning from me.”

A: That is correct. Any object, including your body and mind, my body and mind and the body and mind of an entity you call Dennis lacks that subtle quality of “awaring” or “knowing.”  That is why all objects are said to be insentient.  The quality of sentience is obtained by them by virtue of something else.  We have to find out what that ‘something else’ is. The tools given by Advaita will help in this.

Q:   “If I see a figure in clouds or a face in some wood-grain should I see this as information with meaning?”

A: Wait, wait.

Your seeing gives you just some data. It is not information. Information is obtained by implementation of a process on raw data. Who has given you the process? What is the validity of the process?

Q:  “Does the consciousness ‘behind’ or ‘underneath’ everything communicate meaning with physical events ( pictures,or ‘my thoughts’ , or even ambiguous hand-writing!) the way we normally communicate meaning with words and concepts? In other words–if the entire universe is consciousnesses can anything be truly mindless or meaningless?”

A: Consciousness is just like a sensor. It merely senses things unaffected by what is being sensed. For example, a TV antenna senses all programs – sad ones, happy ones, in English, French, Swahili or what not. Does the antenna give a meaning to anything sensed by it? No.

What meaning can you give to a program in Piranha? It is something else that gives a meaning. What is that that gives a meaning? We have to find out. Again Advaita gives the tools.

Q:  “Surely it is the case that in our present scientific understanding a molecule by itself does not display the characteristics we associate with a mind. Does this then imply that the ultimate reality or “consciousness” when ‘objectified’ as a physical thing is essentially mindless until such time that it evolves Darwinian style to achieve a mind or self-consciousness?”

A: The question is not clear to me.  Do you mean to ask if there is a time gap and a process of Darwinian evolution for Consciousness to become mind-like? Why do you assume that Consciousness is like a tiny molecule with certain finite properties? So we should first be clear about the model we are proposing.

Q:  “It does not make sense to me that I should assume that something like a mind could exist without some kind of evolution. In which case positing the existence of some other prior consciousness seems pointless, it only complicates what seems a simpler solution–mindless processes plus evolution evntually produces minded behaviours and consciousness.”

A: Why should mindless processes have an evolution at all? And what is mindful behavior?

Obviously, there is a high need to define your terminologies, processes and models and refine the questions before any intelligible answer can be given.

A (Martin):
Q: “I have an odd question, a question that I am not even sure how to formulate, it concerns consciousness. Why does Advaita philosophy insist on calling the ultimate reality consciousness?”

A.   It is perhaps the most appropriate term, though ‘awareness’ works as well.

 Q: “The word consciousness implies intelligence and thought.”

 A.   ‘Consciousness’ implies intelligence, but not necessarily thought.  Thought implies consciousness and at least a degree of intelligence.

 Q: “How do we know that anything outside of brains is in any way conscious?”

A.   Brains, and everything else, are part of consciousness, which is pervasive throughout manifestation. Ultimately everything is consciousness, or reducible to consciousness. This is the advaitic teaching.

  Q: “Does this mean that physical reality amounts to the “thoughts” of this consciousness?”

A.    Metaphorically, yes; through the creative power of mAyA.

 Q: “Can the transcendent consciousness send messages to an embodied consciousness?”

A.    They are the same consciousness – there is only one.

 Q:  “I know that an advaitin will say that there is only a non-dual reality but I mean this( however unreal or relative a reality my individual reality may be from an ‘ultimate’ perspective’) in much the same way that until you received this e-mail from me you were not aware of any ‘message’ or meaning from me.”

A.   From the highest perspective you are not an individual; You are Atman, the Self. Any message from ‘you’ to ‘me’ is through the mind, which is universal, and ‘seemingly’ particular.

 Q: “If I see a figure in clouds or a face in some wood-grain should I see this as information with meaning?”

A.   No; only imaginations, with which you (apparently individual mind) can play.

 Q: “Does the consciousness ‘behind’ or ‘underneath’ everything communicate meaning with physical events (pictures, or ‘my thoughts’, or even ambiguous hand-writing!) the way we normally communicate meaning with words and concepts?”

A.   Consciousness or awareness does nothing. There is a ‘witness consciousness’, so called, which is not different from pure consciousness.

Q:  “In other words–if the entire universe is consciousness, can anything be truly mindless or meaningless?”

A.   Only to the mind affected by ignorance, which can also err. The universe as a whole (and also in its ‘apparent’ particularities) is sat-chit-ananda – being, consciousness, unending bliss. The universe, as an apparent projection of the absolute (brahman) is seamless.

 Q: “Surely it is the case that in our present scientific understanding a molecule by itself does not display the characteristics we associate with a mind.”

 A.   A molecule, same as with a cell, shows that there is a (cosmic) intelligence at work of which it is a result, as is the case with all the laws of nature so far discovered, including quantum physics.

 Q: “Does this then imply that the ultimate reality or “consciousness” when ‘objectified’ as a physical thing is essentially mindless until such time that it evolves Darwinian style to achieve a mind or self-consciousness?”

A.   That is putting the cart ahead of the horse. Yes, you can objectify consciousness (or ‘God’), as an idea in the mind, but for that you still need consciousness itself, which is prior to mind. That paragraph does not make sense (to me). Elliptically, ‘consciousness is all’; you can call it ‘the Absolute’, Brahman, ‘ultimate reality’, etc., from the dualistic viewpoint which language implies, but that understanding is more of the nature of an intuition (anubhava: direct experience, realization, in Sanskrit), or ‘revelation’ if you wish – happening in the mind, but “mind-transforming”.

Furthermore, evolution belongs to the cosmos, ever in motion, but not to consciousness, which is unchanging, ever the same (from what has been said above).

A (Dennis): I’m afraid I don’t have time to provide any detailed answer this week but, having read through the above, I would add that you might find it useful to understand the concept of chidAbhAsa – the idea that personal ‘consciousness’ is a reflection of the non-dual absolute Consciousness in the mind of the person. I keep giving these links because so many questioners seem not to understand the concept. http://tinyurl.com/qgo7d4a and http://tinyurl.com/nkrstlg

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