For most spiritual seekers ‘consciousness’ has a positive connotation; they want to extend, raise, deepen their consciousness, or simply become more conscious. But as with so many other terms – soul, spirituality, freedom, love, truth, bliss, energy – everybody understands something else by them.
In Advaita Vedanta every term is defined unambiguously. In our normal usage of words, depending on the context, one defines consciousness in diverse ways. Generally, however, a material viewpoint forms the basis of the Western view. We think that consciousness depends on the brain, for example that one can switch it off or can raise and extend it (temporarily) by certain drugs. Also we think that we can direct our consciousness, align it to something or withdraw it from something.
We consider ourselves as conscious if we remember whether we have switched off the iron and as unconscious if we forgot it. Also, we should always remain conscious of internal processes – we consider ourselves more conscious if we note that an emotion has arisen inside us at the time that is arises, than if we note this only afterwards or not at all.
By observing ourselves and the world around us and always knowing exactly what is happening, we try to raise or expand our consciousness. We think that mindfulness is a form of higher consciousness and want to increase our consciousness by meditating or finding spiritual inspiration. All this is often called ‘consciousness work’ or ‘Awakening consciousness’. Meditation, psychotherapy, energy work or methods of personality development are called on/used to perform ‘consciousness work’. However, what consciousness really is, is rarely defined.
Consciousness in terms of Advaita Vedanta can neither be expanded nor narrowed, neither lost nor raised, neither diminished nor increased. It cannot be directed, nor withdrawn and we can neither have a lot of it, nor a little, nor none.
What we narrow, expand, lose, diminish, raise, deepen, direct or withdraw, are certain functions of the mind – mainly the buddhi, which I will define here as ‘higher mind’. A well functioning buddhi enables us to learn; therefore, the buddhi is particularly important on the path of Vedanta, the path of understanding. Indeed the best way to sharpen the buddhi, is training its ability to discern/distinct/discriminate, for example, in using unambiguously defined terms or question things, until one has thoroughly understood. Processes such as ‘consciousness work’ play no role in this.
This does not make them worthless, because everything that quietens down the three other functions of the mind, serves to make us fit for the teachings of Advaita Vedanta. The path is easier when the mind is quiet, but the activity involved in quieting the mind is preparatory. It is different from actually walking the path.
The ‘path of’ Vedanta is not a journey from here to there – I need not achieve an end in time and space. Rather I want to discover something that has always been and will always be: my true nature, that which is my true self. To discover this, I need a well functioning buddhi and the readiness to use it in my search. Consciousness is something, I already have, in fact more than that: according to Vedanta consciousness is what I truly am.
Consciousness is the very basis of existence. It is in and through all. Without consciousness there would be nothing. Everything that is here is by its very nature consciousness. And: If there was nothing here consciousness would still be here.
As I am part of everything there is, I too, by my real nature, am consciousness – which answers the question regarding my true nature. But, as I know very well, I still cannot tick the question off. Just because I read this in the scriptures of Vedanta or hear it from a Satsang teacher, I have not yet recognised it as true.
If, up to now, I have assumed that I need to develop in a certain direction and that I need to have certain qualities and experiences to find the truth, and if so far I have not found the truth thereby, it is worthwhile to try out a different approach: for a start I assume that I am consciousness by my real nature – I have not recognised it yet, however, I can recognise it because I am it.
To realize what I am, I need not do any ‘consciousness work‘. The path of understanding is about reflecting and inquiring whenever I notice that I only believe something because I would like it to be that way. To discover what I am, I also need to be willing – especially so in the spiritual area:
- to apply sober analysis,
- to think matters through
- to question my beliefs, and
- to inquire if I do not understand something, until I do understand it.
Energy and Consciousness
Energy and consciousness are often lumped together because neither can be experienced by the five senses. However, in Advaita Vedanta the two are not related in any way. Energy is a subtle phenomenon, i.e. energy is matter in very fine form. Consciousness on the other hand is no matter at all, it exists regardless of any form of matter, be it gross or subtle.
Energy has qualities, it has colours, shades, it can be dense or subtle, strong or weak, high or low, pleasant or unpleasant etc. Consciousness on the other hand is utterly neutral, it is pure being, without any quality. It does not feel like anything, neither good nor bad, it IS.
The one who is after energetic highs – after higher and highest vibrations – may possibly raise his/her energy level by “consciousness work”, at least temporarily. Nevertheless, he/she will not be able to trace back to their true nature in that way.
Whoever wants to track down his or her true nature, must say goodbye to the idea that by discovering what he/she is, something will be added. Understanding who I truly am means the need to add anything to what I am has dropped because it is absurd to want to make a completeness even more complete.
As consciousness shines unaffected through experience, it is the knowing ground beneath all acts and happenings. Unmoved itself by any act, it is the final ground of our experience. From it, all actions rise. On it, all actions take place. Back into it, all actions must return and be absorbed. Ananda Wood
Photo Credits: Katharina Wieland Müller@pixelio.de
You are right in saying that this term consciousness needs defining, and I fully agree with you that consciousness can neither be raised, heightened, nor expanded. But, I have some basic disagreements with this model of Advaita that you lay out and also how you define consciousness and self. I will try and explain.
Everyone considers themselves conscious. Everyone also knows that they exist. Existence, consciousness, and, self, all appear together and cannot be separated. There is no self without consciousness and no consciousness without self. The very idea of consciousness implies the awareness of something. And the consciousness of something implies however subtly, an experience. When you say that consciousness is the true self, I fully agree. But, I don’t think it ends there. I don’t think the implication of consciousness being Brahman can be drawn from this model. A further development is needed and spoken about in the literature of India and elsewhere. That is, the further transformation of consciousness (true self) into the No-Self state and the end of self/consciousness, and, all experiencing. This is precisely talked about in the conversations with Nisargadatta Maharaj, UG Krisnnamurti, and, Bernadette Roberts, all suggesting this quite clearly in their descriptions of how this has left them. Ramesam has suggested that in the case of Nisargadatta, a wrong interpretation of consciousness has been given by the translators, but I think he is mistaken.
Of course, the question arises as to how does anyone know what the truth of all this is? Certainly not by belief or faith that what is written is so. We can only know the truth of this through our own direct experience. Everything else is only working from an intellectual model and is all conceptual. You don’t advance through concepts, so to speak. None of the above mentioned people arrived at their realization through any systematic procedure. They all tell you at some point, that all your efforts to understand this must stop. That they really didn’t know how it happened to them, and, at some point, they all died, literally, as Ramana and UG have described in detail in their case. This death gives rise to a resurrection of the body in the sense of a mutation taking place in someone who survives this death.
The only reason I mention all of this is to point out that the Advaita model doesn’t cover the whole story and at some point, all this intellectual explanation and investment into our own spiritual journey must be abandoned. It’s only baggage that we’ve been carrying around for millenia.
There is a lot to say about your comment but I will just pick two points to respond to.
I fully agree with you that ‘at some point, all this intellectual explanation and investment into our own spiritual journey must be abandoned.’
We disagree about when this ‘some point’ is.
The most traditional of traditional advaitins claim that this point can only be arrived at by someone who has studied Vedanta with a sampradaya teacher. Although I think that this is immensely valuable, I do not believe that it is the only way, simply because I do not think that there is only one way. Nor is abandoning all efforts the way, apart from the fact that only with enlightenment all effort drops. Before enlightenment you may want to drop effort but as long as you have not arrived you are bound to make efforts, may they be ever so subtle.
You seem to be saying that first you drop all efforts and then enlightenment will happen. I say that both are simultaneous and that no doing of any kind, not even dropping efforts, will bring about enlightenment.
You say ‘the advaita model’ is ‘intellectual explanation’ that ‘must be abandoned’. I, on the other hand, see advaita vedanta delivering results with the people I work with. They are Western seekers, all of them for years on Western style spiritual journeys (including trying to drop all efforts). When I start working with them their minds are brimful with all sorts of things they read, heard, experienced, tried to experience, desire to experience etc.
Many ideas stand side-by-side with many other ideas that, if you think them through, actually cannot go together. Advaita Vedanta provides great tools; one of them is appreciating the application of logic in spiritual matters. Incisive inquiry clears people’s minds. But this is not enough because people will start filling up with different ideas quickly. You will probably say that feeding in Vedantic concepts is no different. I do not agree. These concepts are great because they are like thorns that are used to remove thorns. They need not be kept after the thorn is removed. When they have done their work, we move on.
Just to clarify, when I say all effort must stop, I am not implying that you begin to stop any inquiry into the matter of understanding what you are doing. If there is any benefit to self-knowledge, which I think there is, it doesn’t come about through not making an effort. You must make an effort to understand the workings of the mind and what you call your self. But, these efforts often take the form of trying to achieve something, a change in one’s state. The effort needed is observation to see what it is you are working with. Nothing else need be added. No philosophy, concept, cosmological model. The actual observation of experience, you, world, and its combination in action, leads you to the point where effort is relaxed. It relaxes because of the impossibility of mind to achieve what it thought it could achieve. This understanding in itself, has an effect on body-mind.
Perhaps you feel similarly to what I just described. I am not opposed to many points that Advaita makes which I think are valid. There are many approaches that can get one’s attention and draw it into self observation. This is all that can be done in any approach. The rest I have serious problems with as the introduction of a conceptual model creates a great wall of separation between what is and a description of what reality is. This is the point of abandonment I speak of because what happens to oneself is no longer in your hands. The mind simply has no way of dealing with this process, this living reality.
Yes, I can go with some of what you said. And I think that it is unavoidable for the seeker to try to achieve something, a change in one’s state. That’s why a teacher is needed – to point out if the seeker does that. I do not agree with nothing need be added, in the sense that I claim thorns need to be added sometimes in order to remove other thorns. The teacher knows that he is just using a tool to get rid of misunderstandings, the seeker will come to know only after the tool has successfully done its job. You say the introduction of a conceptual model creates a great wall of separation between what is and a description of what reality is. It certainly can do that if not handled properly by a teacher. That’s why it is not advisable to study Vedanta on your own. You are bound to misunderstand. Everything in advaita vedanta stands and falls with the understanding of “mithya”. Without a proper understanding of this you will take conceptual models, for example a cosmological model, as absolute reality and remain trapped in duality.
I am not against those who have had a real transformation occur in their lives who chat with people and talk about what has taken place in them. People like Nisargadatta, U.G., JK, Ramana. When you meet with people like them, I can tell you first hand they are not communicating any teaching, system, or way of thinking. They understand that all models create images in your mind that you will only wind up struggling with more than you struggle with yourself at present. It is what they don’t say that is most important because whatever they say, you are going to make something out of it. You can’t help it. It’s what we do.
You think you can step out of this trap with a teaching. It is just not possible. This has nothing whatsoever to do with your understanding, your mind, with anything that you know. How could it? You are only walking deeper into the maze. You have hope. But it is hopeless. And this hopelessness somehow connects us to what we are. And what we are has nothing to do with all these Sanskrit terms that are bandied about here. They are ultimately impediments and serve little purpose except in conceptualizing Life. This is a fire that demands everything, every shred of what you think you are and know. I don’t know how to say it more clearly than this.