Q.490 Consciousness and the Brain

Q: My question is one I can’t seem to clarify through any book, teacher or teaching:

How do we know that the brain isn’t responsible for consciousness? While we can observe mind with all of it’s contents as objects and then say we cannot be that which we observe, how can we be sure that there is not just some part of the brain which does the observing that is giving us this ability to watch thought? How does Vedanta address this? How can we know that the brain isn’t simply the one observing all phenomena?

Side note: I lost consciousness once due to a fall and blacked out, and all I can say is that there was complete absence of being and no one there to be aware of the non-beingness. No observer nor observed. Beyond no-thing. Absolutely no experience beyond the concept of the word.

A: Can I ask how you knew that you were aware of nothing when you ‘lost consciousness’?

One of the metaphors that Advaita uses to help understand Consciousness is that of a reflection. Please read the following articles that I have written on the topic and see if they help:

The first is in four parts so there is quite a lot of material.
https://www.advaita-vision.org/chidabhasa/ and https://www.advaita-vision.org/continuing-reflections-on-reflections/ and discussion at https://www.advaita-vision.org/discussion-on-chidabhasa/

I also wrote an article specifically on the topic of science’s doomed attempts to understand Consciousness (this is in two parts):
https://www.advaita-vision.org/consciousness-not-such-a-hard-problem-1-of-2/

Q: Thanks so much for your reply. I will definitely read the articles. I actually just found your work last night while I was searching for books on Advaita Vedanta. I’ve started to read ‘Back to The Truth’ and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. 

What I can say about the experience of losing consciousness is that there was no experience or awareness. No experience nor experiencer. The only way that I was “aware“ as it were of losing it was because two friends were witness to the event and told me that I blacked out. The only experience had by me was when I came to, on the ground with a sore noggin. It was as if the time between when I fell and when I woke up was stitched together because the gap of losing consciousness probably would not have been known had I been alone at the time. Only reflecting back once they told me I lost consciousness could I say “oh I was gone? Well that wasn’t so bad then!”

One more question if I may. If consciousness is not a product of the brain, then why have teachers attributed consciousness with bodily sensations such as “peace” “joy”  “love” and so on. Perhaps a teacher might say: When the Self is realized there is nothing but peace, however I believe Nisargadatta in his later talks said “when the body goes the consciousness goes with it.”

How can there be knowing of the feeling or fragrance even of consciousness if we are using the body to interpret it? In deep states of meditation it is still the body and mind interpreting the experience through consciousness, but when the body dies, comparing to when I fell, don’t both experience and experiencer dissolve? No experience and no experiencer? That is to say, when the body goes the consciousness goes with it?

A: If I ask you whether or not you KNOW that you were aware of nothing when you had the fall and before you found yourself on the ground, I think you will say ‘yes’, will you not? So I ask again: how do you KNOW that you were aware of nothing? (This is quite different from believing what your friends tell you.)

Many modern teachers DO attribute ‘peace’, ‘joy’, ‘love’ etc. to Consciousness. But they are wrong! Consciousness (Brahman) is non-dual so can have no attributes. The ‘description’ of Brahman as ‘satyam, j~nAnam, anantam’ (unlimited existence-consciousness) is not a description in the usual sense. These words are not being used as adjectives. They are being used in a very clever way to ‘point’ the seeker towards an intuitive understanding of something that is intrinsically beyond understanding. (Shankara uses many words to explain this in his commentary on the Taittiriya Upanishad.)

Both body and mind are inert. They are able to function because they are ‘enlivened’ by Consciousness. Consciousness is all there is. It does not ‘know’ anything in the conventional sense. ‘Knowing’ is a function of the mind, enabled by Consciousness.

Be a bit wary of ‘Back to the Truth’. I wrote it a long time ago. I am, in fact, about to rewrite it when I have completed the book I am currently writing. There is some good stuff in there and a variety of approaches. But, with the benefit of considerably more understanding, I will now probably omit a lot of the extracts (or explain the dangers of misunderstanding) and replace them with traditional material so as to give overall consistency and hopefully thereby avoid any confusions.

Q: Is there another one of your books that you would confidently recommend to read? I am not a beginner so to speak on the path so perhaps I will manage to adequately sus out Back to The Truth. From what I have read so far I am very much enjoying it. However I will gladly accept another recommendation from you if you have one. 

To answer your question I would first say that I would not explain it as “I was aware of nothing” because there was no “I” and there was no awareness. When I came to I asked my friends what happened and they said that I hit my head and blacked out. I reflected back on the moment before losing consciousness and the present moment of being on the ground with a sore head. I guess I can say I “know” about this loss of awareness because there was a before and an after. Before I hit my head I was conscious and experiencing. After I woke up I was again conscious and experiencing. Therefore I know by means of contrast. 

It is similar to deep sleep. I can say I know about it because there was a prior event (going to sleep and then dreaming) and then waking up. When we say “I slept so deeply”, some will draw the conclusion from this statement that deep sleep must be enjoyed. Then the teacher asks “By what it is enjoyed?”. Is this not a matter of words? Isn’t it during deep sleep that the body is able to maximally rest and therefore feels refreshed upon wakening. And this produces positive sensations in the body whereby we use the expression “I slept so well and deep”? Is it not the mind reaping the benefits of positive sensations and enjoying the feeling of a good night’s sleep?

I think I do agree that consciousness provides the mind the ability to notice and enjoy what the sensations report to the body and that without consciousness this would not be possible, but when there is no longer an “I” (consciousness) and no longer an experience, then how can we say that consciousness somehow still remains? I go back to Nisargadatta when he talks about the “I Am” and the Absolute. He says when the body goes the I Am goes with it and dissolves into the Absolute which is void of experience and does not know that it is. 

With humility and continued curiosity and openness I write these words. 

A: The second edition of ‘Book of One’ is the one I would recommend for a general but fairly detailed overview of Advaita. (The first edition was the first book I wrote, even before ‘Back to the Truth’.) But, since you are so interested in ‘states’ of consciousness and their relation to the ‘real I’, you should read ‘A-U-M: Awakening to Reality’. This is a commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad and Gaudapada’s kArikA-s and is the text to explain all of this. (It is said  that the Mandukya is sufficient on its own to give enlightenment.) It is also the most ‘advanced’ book I have had published to date. (The one I am currently writing will pinch that title!) Don’t be tempted to read any other book on Mandukya and Gaudapada incidentally. I have them all and can pretty much guarantee that they would not help. Not being immodest here – it took me over 30 years to grasp what they are saying.

The ideas of ‘inference’ and ‘knowing by contrast’ are rationalizations devised by the mind and intellect. I would still say that you know (without any doubt) that you did not know anything while you were ‘unconscious’. And the reason is that, although the senses and mind were inactive because the brain was rebooting, there remained the essential Consciousness, which is eternal and omnipresent and is what you really are. If Consciousness had been absent, how could it appear again when you wake up?

The ‘enjoyment’ of deep-sleep is so-called because there is no duality in deep-sleep. You are effectively the non-dual Self – i.e. your natural state, characterized by many teachers as Ananda, as you pointed out. But it is also a state of total ignorance. (Ignorance is bliss!) What you are aiming to realize is turIya, the reality underlying the mithyA states of waking, dream and deep-sleep.

4 thoughts on “Q.490 Consciousness and the Brain

  1. Hello Questioner of Q: # 490,

    It may help your thinking and analysis if you keep the following points in your mind:

    1. The word “consciousness” as used by Maurice Frydman in Nisargadatta’s dialogs is not the same as we (and Dennis in his works) normally understand it to be. In “I am That,” the word “consciousness” means most of the time simply “mind.” Occasionally, it is also used to imply the sentient part of the mind. As you may know, ‘mind’ can be understood to have two components, a matter part and an illuminating (Awareness) part.

    2. Modern day writers use Consciousness as synonymous to Awareness (both capitalized). Capitalization stands for their Universal nature. If the lowercase letter is used, they refer to individual: e.g. I am conscious of the weather; She is aware of the slope; brahman is Consciousness.

    3. If “brain” were to generate “consciousness,” you should have been conscious or aware during the time you “blacked out” because your brain was there at that time and alive too. But you were not conscious. Hence, you can say that brain alone does not produce consciousness.

    4. Being blacked out, or under anesthesia or fainting, swoon, stupor etc. are almost same thing as deep sleep. The sense of “I am aware” is absent. If “Awareness” is present and you are in a deep sleep condition, that is equivalent to being as brahman or turIya.

    5. We can say that the sense of “time” is absent when you are in a blacked out state, or anesthesia or deep sleep because the normal ‘mind’ we are familiar with is absent in those times. Therefore, we can conclude that ‘mind’ is necessary to have a sense of time. IOW, mind gives us the sense of time or mind is time!

    6. We in hindsight feel having relaxed and refreshed after a stint of deep sleep not because you have any knowledge of deep sleep in your present “awake” state, but because the awake mind that is present now (after you woke up) senses the “after-effects” of deep sleep. You may read the detailed explanation here:

    https://www.advaita-vision.org/deep-sleep-in-direct-path/

    7. With all that said and done, one has got to admit that brain does bear a more noticeable signature or footprint of “Awareness” and not, say, your left or right big toe! 🙂

    8. When Nisargadatta says that ‘when the body goes the I Am goes with it,’ we may understand that when one dies, the mind has left the gross physical body. Therefore, the death of the physical body is not the death of the mind.
    Though the brain is still present in the corpse, no ‘consciousness’ is present in the dead body, once again proving that brain by itself does not produce ‘consciousness.’

    I hope the above clarifications are some help.

    regards,

  2. “Many modern teachers DO attribute ‘peace’, ‘joy’, ‘love’ etc. to Consciousness. But they are wrong! Consciousness (Brahman) is non-dual so can have no attributes. The ‘description’ of Brahman as ‘satyam, j~nAnam, anantam’ (unlimited existence-consciousness) is not a description in the usual sense. These words are not being used as adjectives. They are being used in a very clever way to ‘point’ the seeker towards an intuitive understanding of something that is intrinsically beyond understanding. (Shankara uses many words to explain this in his commentary on the Taittiriya Upanishad.)”

    Using ‘peace’, ‘joy’, ‘love’, ‘bliss’, etc. in connection with Brahman is useful for emphasizing the desirability of Brahman and the celebrative and joyful meaning of liberation. The Advaita tradition views liberation or moksha as the attainment of Brahman, which is not just the negation of sorrow (duhkha), but the positive gain of peace, joy, etc. It is, as Shankara puts it, the worldly bliss that is a particle of the Bliss that is Brahman. Knowing that one is non-different from the limitless (ananta) Brahman engenders a state of contentment and fullness that may be rightly characterized as bliss (ananda). It removes the misunderstanding of taking oneself to be mortal and unhappy.

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