Q: I recently had an experience that leaves me baffled. I have read your books, the sections on deep sleep consciousness, and it does not seem to match. The incident occurred when I will was given anaesthesia for hip replacement surgery. I went from eyes open in the operating room to who eyes open in the recovery room without any sensation in between at all. The experience was seamless and continuous from one consciousness to another. Time was absolutely absent. There was no reflection possible on the three-hour interlude. There was no interlude. There was no feeling of having slept well or otherwise.
This experience has left me with a problem. This was the nonexistence of any kind of consciousness, even in retrospect It seems neither the small self or the real self existed at all. Please comment.
A (Peter): Three situations are given by traditional teachers for when the I-sense is resolved into the truth of itself as pure existence-consciousness: deep sleep, swoon or samAdhi. There was no mention of anaesthesia as it wasn’t available at the time, so we now need to add anaesthesia to the list of situations when the I-sense is resolved. When the knowledge of ‘I am’ is not there, then the knowledge ‘the world is’ cannot arise. So this state is experienced as a total blank.
Some would conclude from this experience that everything arises out of a void and that the void is empty of everything. This is not accepted by Vedanta for one reason: you know that nothing was known in the three hours between operating room and recovery room. How do you know that nothing was known if there was not something that was aware of the absence? So, whilst it is accurate to say that ‘no reflection was possible in the three hour period’ (mind was resolved, senses were resolved and thus objects of perception were as good as non existent) it is not accurate to say ‘there was non-existence of any kind of consciousness’. Pure consciousness – i.e. consciousness not appended to any object of awareness – was there.
The seed of the misunderstanding of consciousness may be found in your statement: ‘even in retrospect It seems neither the small self or the real self existed at all’. Consciousness is not defined by an experience of a ‘small self’ or ‘real self’. Consciousness is that because of which there is experience and is not what’s meant by the common, everyday understanding of the word as implied by statements like: ‘I was conscious of someone in the room’. Consciousness is neither a state nor an activity: it is that because of which all states and all activities are known. ‘Small self’ is erroneous self perception and ‘real self’ is consciousness itself.
One last thing that needs to be said to make the answer complete is that the states of deep sleep, swoon, samAdhi and when one is under anaesthetic are characterised by total ignorance. For one who still does not know the truth of the self, ignorance continues to cover the truth of the self during the waking state too. For the one who is totally awake to the truth of his or her self, this ignorance is not there during the waking state.
A (Sitara): The small self, as you call it, is called ahankara or the ego in Advaita Vedanta, which is a function of the mind. As that, the small self/ego being absent means the mind being absent – which it is in states such as deep sleep, swoon, samadhi or anesthesia. Due to its own absence the mind could not record anything so, in retrospect, it records a time lapse, calling it a consciousness lapse. Your statement is based on the mind labeling something it does not recall as ‘no consciousness’. Instead of “even in retrospect” it is rather ‘because in retrospect’.
Also, there seems to be a misunderstanding about what consciousness is – a very common misunderstanding in fact. The ego/small self is nothing but the idea of a separate self, living in a world of duality. This small self’s consciousness therefore is consciousness operating in duality so there is always an object to this consciousness. As you rightly say such a consciousness was absent in anesthesia, nothing was perceived.
Advaita Vedanta claims that this kind of consciousness is a mere reflection in the mind of what really can be called consciousness. This true consciousness is the continuum that ensures that your mind could recognize the connection between the you before its absence and the you afterwards. So this true consciousness has not been absent at all.
Advaita Vedanta claims that who you really are, the real self, is nothing but this true consciousness, which as it is eternal cannot possibly be absent ever. But the mind, as its imperfect reflection, can be absent. Because of its imperfection it has great difficulties understanding that it itself is but a reflection of reality. It rather starts to invent its own theories about what it perceives. That’s how such misunderstandings of ‘nonexistence of any kind of consciousness’ can come about.
By the way, the mind does not only invent erroneous theories about the deep sleep state but about everything that it does or does not experience. Within its own framework those theories may be correct and work. Within its framework it is the ultimate reality and in fact is consciousness itself.
But according to Vedanta it is not the ultimate reality and therefore needs to go beyond its own framework in order to understand what the ultimate reality, consciousness, is: the very basis for its own functioning.
This misunderstanding of the mind actually is the very crux of the search for self-realization. Once it is replaced by right understanding the search is complete and the self is realized.
A (Dennis): A: I think there is a tendency for people to equate the ‘Consciousness’ (= brahman) of Advaita with the ‘consciousness’ of ‘being conscious, or aware’. These should not be equated. The former is non-dual, the latter is dual; being conscious entails a subject and an object of which he or she is aware. The states of consciousness refer to the person and require a mind (and a body). One should always bear in mind the concept of chidAbhAsa; that idea of ‘reflected consciousness’. The sense of separate identity is the result of the non-dual Consciousness being reflected in the mind. Hence I see what I see, you see what you see and I do not know what you are thinking. If your mind is shut down, whether by anaesthetic or by death, it ceases to reflect Consciousness for the duration. But of course that does not mean that Consciousness is not there. If you hold a mirror in such a way as to reflect the sun’s rays into a darkened room, you will be able to see the objects in that room. If you then cover up the mirror with your hand, you will no longer see those objects – but of course the sun is quite unaffected.
My article at http://advaita-academy.org/Articles/The-Real-I-verses-the-Presumed-I—An-Examination-of-chidAbhAsa.ashx gives a much extended explanation of this. I also discuss how many states of consciousness there are in my blog – http://advaita-academy.org/blogs/DennisWaite/States-of-Consciousness—2,-3,-4-and-12.ashx.
A (Ramesam): Ramesam is unable to reply at present but has written several articles around this topic and will post a blog on the subject in due course.