Science and Nonduality Conference talk: Starting with Consciousness
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.
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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 space-like or field-like quality, and see that whatever thoughts are appearing are appearing in this space-like, aware field.
We should close our eyes for a few minutes to do this. Establish again that your thoughts appear in an aware, space-like 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 insidewhat I am and the sound appears outsidewhat 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 outsideconsciousness.
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.
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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.
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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.
So how are we going to find out about the nature of consciousness or awareness? We first have to find out what it is that knows the experience of awareness, of being aware. Only that could tell us anything about its nature.
If I were to ask each of you now the question, ‘Are you aware?’, everyone would pause for a moment, refer to their experience and answer, ‘Yes’. What happens in that pause?
Ask yourself the question again, ‘Am I aware?’, and just remain for a while in that pause before thought answers, ‘Yes’. That pause is a gap between two thoughts, the first thought, ‘Am I aware?’ and the second thought, ‘Yes’.
During the first thought, ‘Am I aware?’, we are not quite sure that we are aware, and by the time the second thought appears, we are absolutely certain, ‘I am aware’. In other words, the certainty of being aware takes place in between those two thoughts. It doesn’t take place in the mind.
When we hear the question, ‘Am I aware?’, awareness directs itself towards the question. At the end of the question, there is a pause in which awareness has nowhere to direct itself, and as a result it collapses for a moment, sinks back for a moment into itself, and then rises again in the form of the answer, ‘Yes’.
In this pause awareness tastes itself, momentarily. In the pause between the question and the answer, we become aware that we are aware. Not only am I aware, but I am aware that I am aware. In that pause, consciousness knows itself; it recognises its own being.
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It is consciousness itself that knows that it is conscious. It is awareness itself that recognises its own being. In other words, only awareness can know anything about awareness. The finite mind, that is, thought and perception, can tell us nothing about awareness. The finite mind is an expression of awareness, it is made of awareness, but it cannot know anything about awareness, because the finite mind can only know something objective.
It’s easy to test that out in your experience. Try now to think of something that has no objective qualities. It’s not possible. The very best we can do is manufacture a blank object that mimics the presence of awareness. Although thought is made only of consciousness, it cannot know the stuff it is made of, just like a character in a movie is made of the screen but cannot know the screen.
Consciousness is an aware field, but because it has no dimensions, we can say it is more like a presence than a space-like field. As we have just discovered, it is not possible to think, let alone speak, of something that has no dimensions, so in order to speak about the nature of awareness we give it this space-like quality. We describe it as the space of awareness in which all experience appears, or the screen of awareness on which all experience appears.
Consciousness is a space-like presence in which thoughts, sensations, perceptions appear, but is not itself made of thought, sensation or perception. It has no objective qualities, and is thus sometimes said to be empty. It’s not really empty, but it is empty from the point of view of objects. It is empty of all objective content or quality. It has no finite qualities and is thus said to be infinite, not finite. Being infinite and empty, there is nothing in it that can divide it.
If there were, for instance, two consciousnesses, there would have to be something about each of those two consciousnesses that divided or distinguished them from one another, and those distinguishing qualities would be finite limits. But nobody has ever experienced a finite limit to consciousness. When I say nobody, I don’t mean to suggest that it is a person that experiences consciousness; it is consciousness that experiences consciousness. It is awareness that is aware of being aware.
If we ask thought about the nature of awareness, thought will tell us that every single body has its own package of awareness. But if we ask the one who knows, that is, if we asked awareness itself, ‘What do you know about yourself? What is your experience of yourself?’ awareness would reply, if it could speak, ‘I have no knowledge of any border or distinction or form in myself. I am a single open, empty, indivisible, intimate field’.
That means that the knowing or the consciousness with which each of us is knowing our experience is the sameconsciousness. It means that consciousness can never be divided into parts or objects or selves. It means that if each of us were to take the thought ‘I’ and trace that ‘I’ to its origin, to its source, and if we were to trace it far enough back to the essential nature of each of our minds, we would all arrive at the sameconsciousness. There cannot be two infinite, empty spaces. The knowing with which each of us knows our experience is the same knowing.
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Each of our finite minds is precipitated out of the same infinite field of consciousness. Each of our finite minds is a modulation of the same infinite, space-like field of consciousness. If we think of each finite mind as a field, we can say that part of the fields of our finite minds overlap, and we call that the shared outside world. Part of the fields of our finite minds don’toverlap, and we call that our private thoughts and feelings.
The religion of materialism uses the fact that we all experience the same world – the intersubjective agreement – as proof that there is a world made out of matter existing outside consciousness. However, the reason we all experience the same world is not that there is a world made of matter appearing outside consciousness.
It is because each of our finite minds is precipitated within and from the samefield of infinite consciousness. It is because our minds share consciousness that we feel we share the world. We do share the same world, but the world we share is made of consciousness, not matter, and we are that very consciousness that is informing all finite minds with its shared content.
So the really interesting question, which I believe will sooner or later replace the top two questions – ‘What is the nature of the universe?’ and ‘How is consciousness derived from matter?’ – is, ‘How is the appearance of matter derived from consciousness?’
In other words, we will start with consciousness. Why? Because consciousness is our primary experience. That’s the obvious place to start. How is it possible for consciousness or awareness, which is seamless, indivisible, which has no objective qualities and therefore cannot be divided into parts, to appear as a multiplicity and diversity of objects and selves? That is the really interesting question.
All that is being experienced at this moment is consciousness. Can anyone in this room, at this moment, find anything other than the knowingof their experience? Look around. Point to something that is distinct or other than the knowingof your experience. It’s not there. All that is known is knowing. And it is knowing that knows knowing.
All that is being experienced at this moment is consciousness, modulating itself in the form of the finite mind, that is, in the form of thought and perception. In the form of thought, it appears to itself as time, and in the form of perception it appears to itself as space. Time and space are consciousness modulated through thought and perception.
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How does something that is infinite take on the appearance of something that is finite? How does consciousness appear to itself as a multiplicity and diversity of selves and objects?
In an attempt to answer this question I’d like to give you an analogy. Imagine a woman named Mary falling asleep here in Titignano. Mary’s mind is a single indivisible whole, like each of our minds, and Mary dreams that she is Jane walking the streets of New York. So, Mary’s mind has fallen asleep to its own infinite, indivisible nature and imagines instead that it has assumed the limited form of Jane’s mind. Jane is walking the streets of New York, seeing people, cars, buildings, which from Jane’s point of view all seem to be outside her mind.
When Jane closes her eyes the streets of New York disappear, and therefore she legitimately concludes that whatever it is that is seeing the streets of New York lives just behind her eyes. This and similar experiences convince Jane that the knowing with which she knows her experience lives just behind her eyes, or in her chest, in her body. All her thoughts, feelings and subsequent other activities and relationships are consistent with this belief.
One day Jane goes to a café, and sitting at the table next to her is a handsome man called David. David and Jane notice each other, they start having a conversation, and Jane feels a mysterious attraction to him.
Of course, David and Jane, the café and the streets of New York are all appearances in Mary’s infinite mind. Mary’s mind itself has not been divided into a multiplicity and diversity of objects and selves. It is still the same seamless, indivisible whole that it always is, and yet it has taken on the appearances of Jane and David, and the world in which they seem, from their point of view, to be located. Mary could have dreamt that she was David, instead of Jane, on the streets of New York, in which case she would have seemed to see her experience through David’s eyes instead of Jane’s.
When Jane feels this mysterious attraction towards David and they begin dating, she has a strange feeling that if she were to get closer to David, the pain that she feels in her heart, that she has been trying to escape from all her life, would somehow be alleviated. She feels that somehow to merge with David would give her relief from the pain from which she has been running all her life.
Eventually she and David do get together, and when they merge in friendship and sexual intimacy, she does indeed feel temporary relief from the pain of her longing. What is really happening? Why does Jane feel this longing? From where does the intuition come that it is possible to be relieved of her suffering? And what happens to her suffering when she and David merge?
In this moment of merging there is a temporary loss of all the limitations with which Jane defines herself. There is a temporary collapse of Jane’s finite mind, and in that moment she tastes the essence of her mind, which is Mary’s peaceful mind asleep in Titignano.
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Now, of course, when Jane and David part, this temporary suspension of suffering comes to an end and she feels everything that defines her again. The suffering bubbles up again and she remembers, ‘Ah, the last time I united with David the suffering went away. Therefore, uniting with a person, an object, a substance or an activity must be the way to get rid of my suffering’.
So Jane goes again and again to the object, the substance, the activity or the relationship, in order to find relief from her suffering. Indeed, each time she unites with the object, activity, substance or relationship she does find temporary relief, and this builds up in her the conviction that the way to be free of her suffering is to continually acquire objects, activities, substances and relationships. She ends up being addicted, like most people are, to some kind of an object.
The subtlest object, of course, is thought, and this is the main addiction. It’s free and not bad for our health, so it’s an addiction that doesn’t normally get labelled as such. Nevertheless, it is an object towards which we give our attention, mainly in order to distract ourself from the wound of separation that all apparently separate selves carry around within themselves.
This wound of separation, this longing for freedom, peace, happiness and love is, in fact, an echo in Jane of the nature of Mary’s mind. Mary’s mind is at peace, free, asleep in Titignano.
This longing for freedom, for peace, for happiness that each of us feels is the echo in each of our finite minds, the echo of the true freedom of infinite consciousness. There is no other freedom than the freedom of infinite consciousness. Infinite consciousness isfreedom, peace and happiness itself, and the desire that each of us feels for that freedom, peace, happiness and love is the pull that infinite consciousness exerts on the finite mind.
The finite mind feels that pull in the form of suffering: ‘I long for happiness’. The separate self feels that it is doing the longing, but it is not. It is infinite consciousness that is exerting a force on the finite mind, drawing it back into itself. It is this pull from infinite consciousness on the finite mind that is what the finite mind calls the desire for happiness.
But in order to experience the streets of New York, Mary has had to fall asleep to her own nature. Mary has fallen asleep in Titignano, and it’s only as a result of falling asleep that she is able to realise one of the infinite possibilities that exist within her. She could have dreamt that she was Claire on the streets of Tokyo. She could have dreamt that she was Annabelle on the streets of London. An infinite number of possibilities exist in Mary’s mind. She chose one of those possibilities: to be Jane on the streets of New York.
But to appear as Jane on the streets of New York, Mary had to fall asleep to the infinite nature of her own mind and rise in the form of Jane’s finite mind. It is only from the limited point of view of Jane’s finite mind that Mary was able to experience the streets of New York.
In the same way, to bring manifestation into apparent existence, consciousness needs to fall asleep to its own infinite nature, because it is not possible for something that is infinite to know something that is finite. There is no room in the infinite for the finite.
Manifestation means form, and form means limit, so in order to experience something limited, such as a universe, consciousness must overlook the knowing of its own unlimited being. It must fall asleep to itself and freely assume the form of the finite mind.
In other words, when consciousness brings manifestation into existence, it comes at a price. Consciousness overlooks the knowing of its own being, gives birth to the universe from within itself and then finds itself located as a self in that universe. In order to bring the universe into apparent existence, consciousness has had to forget its innate nature of peace and freedom, and that is why ‘the self in the world’ longs for one thing alone: peace and freedom.
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The only activity the separate self is really engaged in is the discovery of peace, freedom and happiness. It first tries to do this by uniting with objects, substances, states and relationships, but at some point it gets to the end of that adventure. It realises that it can never be fully satisfied by objective experience, and that is when the real journey back home begins.
That is when Jane on the streets of New York asks herself, ‘What is the nature of my mind?’ Jane notices that nothing in life really satisfies her. She has numerous relationships, she tries all sorts of substances, and they all give her temporary relief, but none of them give her the lasting happiness she truly desires.
At one point she begins to explore the only direction left: the nature of her own mind. That exploration takes her mind on a journey backwards towards its source, the subject of experience, rather than outwards towards the object.
On this return journey, the mind is divested, in most cases progressively, of its limitations and at some point stands revealed as infinite consciousness. Jane’s finite mind is revealed as Mary’s infinite consciousness. That is the experience of happiness; that is the experience of love.
It cannot be experienced by the person, because the person dissolves in that experience. The person who seeks happiness and love is like the moth that seeks the flame. The moth longs for the flame above all else but it is the only thing the moth cannot experience. To experience the flame means to be consumed in it, to die into it. That is the experience for which the moth longs.
The only experience that the apparently separate self longs for is the experience of happiness or love. The experience of love is the dissolution of the limitations of the self. It is not an experience that the separate self can have; it is an experience in which the separate self dies.
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Infinite consciousness overlooks the knowing of its own being to bring manifestation into apparent existence. It freely assumes the form of the finite mind in order to know the finite world.
That is why we always seem to know the world from the point of view of an inside self. Even in a dream, the world we experience is seen from the point of view of a self in a body. It is infinite consciousness itself that divides itself into two parts – mind on the inside and matter on the outside – but matter is only matter from the illusory point of view of the finite mind, the self in the body.
From the point of view of infinite consciousness there is no such substance called matter. There isn’t even any substance called ‘the finite mind’; there is only its own infinite, intimate, indivisible being, which never actually ceases to be itself. It never comes in contact with or knows anything other than itself.
This means that all of this, our current experience – and I’m not talking abstract philosophy here; I mean the very experience that each of us is having now – is onlyinfinite consciousness itself assuming the form of the finite mind and appearing to itself as a world.
It means that the substance that our current experience is made of itselfhas no dimensions. It means this ordinary experience of four dimensions of time and space, thoughts, feelings, perceptions, activities, relationships, this very experience that each of us is having now, has no dimensions at all. Don’t try to think of that. It’s not possible to think of something with no dimensions.
Could it be that what is called the Big Bang is not an event that happened millions of years ago, but the event that is continually happening every time infinite consciousness assumes the form of the finite mind and appears to itself as the world?
Could it be that the Big Bang is happening over and over and over again, always in the same Now? And yet, when consciousness does assume the form of the finite mind and appear to itself as the world, no real world made out of matter comes into existence.
Existence comes from two Latin words, exand sistere,meaning ‘to stand out from’. Nothing stands out from consciousness; nobody has ever found a place outside consciousness. No thing comes into existence. Objects borrow their apparent existence from God’s infinite being, the only being there is.
The very ‘I’ that each us is now feeling as ‘myself’, the ‘I’ that I am, is infinite consciousness itself, God’s infinite being. It is the reality, the substance out of which all experience is made.
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No object ever comes out of consciousness; no object ever exists in its own right. The seeming existence of all things belongs to infinite consciousness, just like the apparent existence of characters in a movie belongs to the screen. There are never any divisions in the screen itself. The divisions are always in the appearances, never in the reality.
This means that this very experience that each of us is experiencing is God’s infinite being alone. There is nothing being experienced now other than infinite consciousness, and it is infinite consciousness itself that refracting itself into a multiplicity of finite minds and appearing to itself as a multiplicity of finite worlds. But from consciousness’s point of view it is never experiencing anything other than its own intimate, infinite self.
When the Sufis say, ‘La ilaha illallah’, they mean, ‘There is no god but God’. In other words, no thing has an existence of its own, no thing is a thing unto itself. All things borrow their thingness, their is-ness, their reality, from God’s infinite being.
God’s infinite being shines in each of our minds as the knowledge ‘I am’. That is why the ultimate spiritual practice is to give the ‘I’ that I am our attention, to allow the mind to sink back into its subjective source. As it does so it is temporarily, in most cases, occasionally suddenly, divested of its finite limitations and stands revealed as infinite consciousness, God’s infinite being, the only being there is, the heart that we all share, the heart we all are.
I would suggest that the experience of love is simply the knowledge of our shared being. When we love, we feel one with the other. Love is the experience of our shared being. Is there any experience the separate self desires more than the experience of love?
What the separate self longs for above all else is simply to be divested of its separateness. So as a concession to the separate self, we can say that all the separate self needs to do to find this love for which it longs is to ask itself, ‘What is the nature of the knowingwith which I know my experience?’
All Jane needs to do to be relieved of her suffering on the streets of New York is to ask herself, ‘What is the nature of my mind?’ If Jane enquires deeply enough into the nature of her own mind she will discover that her agitated, finite mind is made of Mary’s peaceful, infinite mind. That’s all there is to Jane’s mind.
All there is to each of our minds is the inherently peaceful presence of infinite consciousness.
love is a place
and through this place of
(with brightness of peace)
yes is a world
and in this world of
E. E. Cummings
From George J. Firmage, Ed., E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems 1904–1962 (Liveright, 1994).
This essay is an edited transcript of Rupert’s talk ‘Love Is a Place’ given at the Science and Nonduality Conference in Titignano, Italy, in 2015.