The New Science of Consciousness
As some of you know, Ellen and I live in Oxford, in the U.K., on the edge of one of the world’s great educational establishments. Just a week or so before we came to the West Coast, a friend of ours emailed to say that he had heard that a well-known and highly respected philosopher from the university was giving a talk on the nature of Consciousness. So we were naturally intrigued and went to the talk.
I won’t begin to try to describe the abstract, convoluted and irrational lines of reasoning that he used to explain the nature of Consciousness, but I will just quote one thing that he said: ‘Some philosophers say that it is possible for Consciousness to be aware of itself; these ideas should be put in the trash.’
I’m touched, David, by your introductory words about how gentle I am, but I have to confess that at that moment I began to feel my sword rattling in its sabre. I managed to hold onto myself till the end of the meeting, and then I said this to him: ‘Everybody in this room is aware that they are conscious.’
He pondered for moment, but nevertheless agreed with me. So then I observed that whatever it is that is aware that we are conscious must itself have two qualities: one, it must be present, and two, it must be aware. What would that be? Consciousness! That’s what Consciousness is: that which is present and aware.
So I suggested to him that the simple experience each of us is now having — the simple experience that ‘I am aware’ — is the experience of Consciousness knowing its own Being.
‘Oh, no, no, you’re going far too quickly’, he said. He took off again into lines of abstruse, convoluted, academic reasoning, which I failed to follow, and when I remonstrated with him again, he simply turned away and took the next question. Profound ignorance masquerading as wisdom, all the worse for coming from a highly respected professor of philosophy at Oxford University.
Not only does Consciousness know its own Being; Consciousness never ceases to know its own Being. In reality, Consciousness never knows anything other than its own Being. And this is everybody’s primary, most intimate and fundamental experience. If I were to ask you now, ‘Are you aware?’ you would pause — actually, in this crowd, none of you would have to pause too long — and would answer, ‘Yes’.
The question ‘Am I aware?’ is a thought. The answer ‘Yes’ is a thought. What takes place between those two thoughts? The experience of being aware that I am aware.
In between those two thoughts, Consciousness is divested of the objective limitations it assumes in order to rise in the form of the finite mind and ask the question, ‘Am I aware?’ There is a plunge of the finite mind into its source in between these two thoughts. In that plunge of the finite mind, or attention, into its source, Consciousness recognizes its own Being — re-cognizes, or knows again, its own Being — which it seemed to overlook or forget when it rose in the form of the finite mind.
The answer ‘Yes’ is again an expression of the finite mind. But the experience of being aware that I am aware takes place between those two thoughts; that non-objective experience is not an experience of the finite mind. Consciousness needs to rise in the form of the finite mind if it wants to know something that is apparently other than itself. But to know itself, it doesn’t need to rise; it need only remain resting in the knowing of its own Being. This knowing of its own Being shines in the mind as the knowledge ‘I’ or ‘I am’ or ‘I am aware’, and is felt in the heart as peace or happiness.
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How does infinite Consciousness rise in the form of the finite mind? It simultaneously creates and identifies itself with a body. This conjunction of infinite Consciousness plus the limitations of the body produces what is called the finite mind. In other words, the finite mind borrows its quality of knowing from infinite Consciousness, and it borrows its apparent limitations from the body. As a result, in between Consciousness and the body stands an entity called ‘personal consciousness’, ‘the ego’, ‘the separate self’, or ‘the finite mind’.
This finite mind, personal consciousness or ego never actually comes into existence. If Consciousness is infinite, how could it possibly know something that is finite? What room is there in infinity for finiteness? As soon as a finite object would arise in infinite Consciousness, the finiteness of that object would displace a little bit of Consciousness’s infiniteness, and therefore Consciousness would cease being infinite, and that cannot be.
It is not possible for Consciousness to know a finite object or self, so for whom is there a finite object or self? For whom is there personal consciousness? For whom is there an ego? Not for Consciousness; not for that which truly is. That which truly is, is and knows itself alone. The finite mind is only a real finite mind from the illusory point of view of the finite mind. The separate self is only a real separate self from its own illusory point of view.
For that which truly is, the only Consciousness there is, Consciousness that knows no limits within itself, there is no object or other. In order to know an apparent object or other, Consciousness must cease gazing at itself, must seem to turn its attention away from itself and rise in the form of the finite mind by assuming the limitations of the body. It is only as that apparently finite mind that Consciousness can turn its attention away from itself and direct its knowing towards an object.
The object that the finite mind seems to know is made out of something called ‘matter’. Matter is a concept invented by the Greeks two and a half thousand years ago to account for that part of our experience that takes place outside mind. They didn’t have a word for Consciousness in those days; they called it ‘mind’. So ‘matter’ was the name they gave to the stuff that seems to exists outside Consciousness.
For two and a half thousand years it seems to have passed our civilization by that we have never found anything outside Consciousness. Physicists are still looking for the nature and cause of this stuff called ‘matter’. They’ve been looking for it for two and a half thousand years; they’ve never found it, and they never will. It’s not there.
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The belief that there is a world out there made out of matter is predicated on the belief that there is a self in here made out of mind. However, if, in order to know the nature of itself, the mind turns its attention away from the objects that it seems to know and redirects it towards the knowing with which it knows its experience, its attention is gradually drawn back and back and back towards its source.
In fact, it’s not a directing of the attention; it is a falling back of the attention. It is what Rumi referred to when he said, ‘Flow down and down and down in ever-widening rings of being’. It is a sinking of the attention into its source.
As the attention sinks into its source it is, in most cases gradually, divested of all the limitations that thought and feelings have superimposed upon it, and at some point it stands revealed as it truly is, infinite Consciousness. Then, as the attention rises again, if we look very closely, we see that the attention never actually leaves Consciousness.
Try now with your attention to attend to something just outside Consciousness. Can any of you find that place? Can any of you find an edge to the field in which your attention is wandering?
Once it becomes clear to us that attention or the finite mind rises from infinite Consciousness, we may notice that attention or mind rises in the form of thought and perception. Thought and perception are the two forms in which the finite mind appears. And if we explore the substance or reality out which thought and perception are made, we find only infinite Consciousness. That is, Consciousness finds only itself.
Thought cannot know Consciousness, although it is made of it, any more than a character in a movie can see the screen out of which it is made. Likewise, perception cannot see Consciousness, although it is made of it.
When thought tries to find the substance in which it appears, it projects its own single dimension onto Consciousness and, as a result, instead of seeing Consciousness it sees time. Time is what Consciousness looks like from the point of view of thought. Time is Consciousness objectified by thought.
Something similar takes place when we try to find the stuff in which our perceptions appear. If we notice the perception of, say, this screen (pointing to the screen on the right), and then we notice the perception of that screen (pointing to the screen on the left), we can ask ourselves, ‘What is the stuff between these two perceptions?’
We look at the two screens, and then we look at the stuff in between, and we label it ‘space’. In fact, perception takes place in Consciousness, not in space. In this case, perception has simply superimposed its own limitations on Consciousness. Space is what Consciousness looks like from the point of view of perception. Space is Consciousness objectified by perception.
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In order to know something other than itself, Consciousness needs to rise in the form of the finite mind. In order to know itself, it doesn’t need the help of a puny, finite mind. To believe that Consciousness needs the finite mind to know itself is like imagining that the sun needs moonlight to illuminate itself. There is no moonlight. It is only the moon that believes it shines with its own light. In reality, the moon borrows its limited light from the infinite light of the sun. The sun is self-luminous.
Likewise, Consciousness is self-knowing. It is only the arrogance of the finite mind that believes that Consciousness needs it, the finite mind, in order to know itself. It doesn’t. Consciousness knows itself by itself, in itself, as itself. All Consciousness finds in itself is itself. There is no room in itself for anything other than itself. In believing that Consciousness needs the finite mind to know itself, the finite mind is simply trying to validate and perpetuate its own illusory existence.
No object, from the point of view of Consciousness, ever comes into existence. Existence means ‘to come into being’, or ‘to stand out from’, from two Latin words, ex, meaning ‘out of’, and sistere, meaning ‘to stand’. The idea is that when something comes into existence it stands out from the background of infinite Consciousness. As a result, we believe in our culture that objects have existence, and that when an object vanishes, its existence vanishes.
No! Objects do not have existence; existence has objects, from time to time. In fact, there is no real ‘existence’, no real standing out from the background of infinite Consciousness. Infinite Consciousness is not the background of experience, though it is often found there first. It is the sole reality of all experience.
If we are totally absorbed in a movie, the screen at first seems to be in the background of the movie. However, the screen is not in the background of the movie; the screen pervades the movie. Even that is a concession to the existence of something other than the screen, that is, the movie. However, the screen doesn’t pervade the movie; it is the movie.
No thing comes into existence or goes out of existence. As it says in the Bhagavad Gita, ‘That which is never ceases to be; that which is not never comes into existence.’
It is for this reason that Rumi said, ‘Knowledge of the world is a kind of ignorance.’ Knowledge of the world outside of Consciousness, made out of stuff called ‘matter’, is a kind of ignorance.
William Wordsworth said, ‘Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.’ He didn’t really mean ‘our birth’; he meant the rising of the finite, waking-state mind. The rising of the waking-state mind is ‘but a sleep and a forgetting’, ‘a kind of ignorance’.
The same understanding is expressed in the Bhagavad Gita, ‘What is the waking state from the point of view of ignorance is sleep from the point of view of wisdom. What is waking from the point of view of wisdom is sleep from the point of view of ignorance.’
The poet Shelley said a similar thing: ‘Life, like a dome of many-colored glass, stains the white radiance of eternity.’ In fact, if we look closely in our experience, nothing really stains the white radiance of eternity. Nothing stains the knowing of our own Being, which shines in the mind as the knowledge ‘I’ or ‘I am’ or ‘I am aware’ and is felt in the heart as peace and happiness.
Every experience leaves the white radiance of eternity, our essential Being, pristine, clean, unscathed, unmodified and unhurt. No experience that any of us has ever had or could ever have has ever truly stained our essential Being of infinite Consciousness. So with great respect to Shelley I would slightly change his words: ‘Life, like a dome of many-colored glass, colors the white radiance of eternity.’
All experiences are a coloring of our essential Being of infinite Consciousness, but Consciousness never becomes any of the colors that it assumes. In fact, if we look even more closely at our experience, we can’t even say that our experience colors our essential Being. So again, with respect to Shelley, I would slightly modify his words: ‘Life, like a dome of many-colored glass, shines with the white radiance of eternity.’
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All that is ever known in experience is the knowing of it. Try now to find anything other than the knowing of your experience. Let your attention go wherever it wants. Ask yourself, ‘Do I ever know or come in contact with anything other than the knowing of experience? Could I ever come in contact with anything other than the knowing of experience?’
Could I, Consciousness, ever come in contact with anything other than the Consciousness of experience? Is there any substance present in experience other than pure Knowing? Not the knowing of something — we never find the ‘something’. We presume the something, but we never find it. That is, Consciousness never finds it. Consciousness never finds anything other than itself.
So when we explore our experience, whatever our experience might be — sitting peacefully listening to a talk, a toothache, a deep depression, the taste of tea, a walk in the countryside — wherever we go in experience, we don’t find the knowing ‘of experience’, as if experience were something separate from the knowing of it. We never find the ‘it’; we find only the knowing of Knowing. And what is the ‘we’ that knows Knowing? Knowing! There is no ‘we’, no ‘I’, apart from this Knowing that knows itself. Therefore, we can no longer even say that Consciousness is everything, or all. There are no things for Consciousness to be the ‘all’ of.
To suggest that Consciousness knows itself through the agency of a finite mind or a separate self is the ultimate blasphemy. It is to admit something other than God. It is to shrink God into a finite entity, a finite object.
It doesn’t sit comfortably in our culture to say, ‘I am God’. You used to get crucified for it! But to say ‘I am infinite Consciousness’ is just a confession of our most intimate and fundamental experience. It is to say ‘I am a finite self’ that is the true blasphemy. To say that there is a finite mind that knows a finite world made of matter, that is true blasphemy.
If we want to know the nature of the world, we have to know the nature of that with which the world is known. The ultimate science is not the science of physics; it is the science of Consciousness.
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Our culture, I believe, now finds itself in a similar position to that in which it found itself in the middle of the sixteenth century. When Copernicus presented his ideas about the heliocentric universe, he ushered in a new era of science that replaced the old religious worldview. Society had outgrown the forms it had created to accommodate itself.
We are now at a similar stage. Our society has outgrown the forms that conventional science created to accommodate itself, and the signs of this are to be found everywhere. The new science is the science of Consciousness. Sooner or later we have to have the courage to face that fact. We can no longer afford to ignore it.
Until we know the nature of the Knowing with which our experience is known, nothing true about the known can be known. In fact, it is never possible to know something true about anything objective. Why? Because everything that is known objectively is known by the finite mind, and the finite mind is predicated on the presumption that I, Consciousness, am limited. All relative knowledge, however fine that knowledge may be, is predicated on that assumption.
If that assumption is explored, it is found to be faulty. Even our finest knowledge is only, at best, relatively true. It can never be absolutely true because it is founded on a presumption. The only absolutely true knowledge there is, is a knowledge that doesn’t change, is present throughout all states of waking, dreaming and sleeping, and, above all, is not known by anything other than itself. These are the tests of absolute knowledge.
If something is known by something other than itself, it would have to depend on that ‘something other’ to be known. All objective knowledge is relative to the presence of the finite mind, and the finite mind is only present during the waking and dreaming states. Therefore, no objective knowledge can be absolutely true or certain. For this reason, science, in its current form, will never discover the reality of matter.
The only absolute knowledge there is, is the knowing of our own Being, its knowing of itself in us, which shines in the finite mind as the knowledge ‘I’ or ‘I am’ or ‘I am aware’, shines in our feelings as peace and happiness, and is revealed in our perceptions as the experience of beauty.
Only that knowledge is absolutely true. It never changes under any circumstances, in any conditions, or in any states. If we ever want to find peace in the world and happiness in ourselves, our knowledge individually and collectively has to be founded upon that which is absolutely true. Any politics, scientific knowledge or personal relationships that are based on anything other than the absolute truth of our own Being are doomed to failure.
This failure is felt by everyone as the experience of suffering. Suffering is, in fact, a call from the depths of our Being, a call from happiness itself: ‘Come back to me. You are looking for me in the wrong place. Cease rising in the form of attention, wandering in the realm of objects, looking for peace in situations, happiness in objects, love in relationships. Look for me where I really am. Look for me in the heart. Look for me in the source of attention, not its destiny.’
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Out of compassion, the great spiritual and religious traditions have elaborated various means, various pathways back to the reality of ‘I’, the reality of experience. But all these pathways are compassionate concessions to the belief and feeling of being a separate self. Ramana Maharshi said, and I paraphrase, ‘I only elaborated the paths of self-inquiry and self-surrender because my students and devotees couldn’t understand the absolute truth.’
In reality, there are no paths to God. God knows itself by itself, through itself, in itself, as itself. There are no means to infinite Consciousness other than infinite Consciousness itself, because from infinite Consciousness’s point of view, which is the only real point of view, there is only itself.
What does this mean in terms of everyday practical life? Does it only mean something when we are sitting at a conference talking about reality? No, it means that all experience is only infinite Consciousness. It means that the taste of tea, the pavement that we’re walking on, the cutlery we hold in our hands, the relationships we have, everything is only God’s infinite Being.
Do we live like that? Or do we just agree with each other at conferences like this? That is not enough, although it is a beginning.
Ellen opened a book at random early this morning and read a quote to me. It was a book that one of you gave to me yesterday, and it said, ‘When the path to God ends, the path in God begins.’ The path in God means to be only infinite Consciousness, to know only infinite Consciousness and to love only infinite Consciousness.