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Posts Tagged ‘Consciousness’

How Many Senses Do We Really Have?

March 4th, 2011 4 comments

We’ve had it drummed into us our whole lives that there are five senses. We all know what these are!

  • Sight
  • Hearing
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Touch

However, is that the end of the story? No, of course not. As with most commonly accepted facts, a closer look reveals that things are not quite so straightforward, as pointed out in the following extract from the Wikipedia article for “Sense”.

There is no firm agreement among neurologists as to the number of senses because of differing definitions of what constitutes a sense. […] Humans are considered to have at least five additional senses that include: nociception (pain); equilibrioception (balance); proprioception and kinaesthesia (joint motion and acceleration); sense of time; thermoception (temperature differences); and possibly an additional weak magnetoception(direction), and six more if interoceptive senses are also considered.

So that makes for a count of 17, so far.

On top of these, there is also the frequently referred to, but little understood, sixth sense. It is called the sixth presumably because it is based on the assumption that there are only the five others to start with (rather than 17 or more), and is generally considered to mean “extra-sensory perception”. This is usually considered to relate to the paranormal, but a more straightforward interpretation is that it means sensing with the mind rather than via a physical sense, and therefore refers to the everyday experience of the sensing or perception of our own thoughts. After all, who could deny being aware of their own thoughts, even though they are obviously not sensed through any of the traditional senses.

And thus we arrive at 18 senses. However, despite this surprisingly high number of supposedly separate senses, do we really experience 18 different types of things?

I very much doubt that anyone would actually be able to keep track of which particular sense is responsible for any given feeling / sensation / perception at any given time. My own experience, and I suspect the experience of everyone else is that there is really only one experience, regardless of which supposed sense it comes through. Rather, everything happens seamlessly in our consciousness.

I might be having a conversation with someone in a crowded room, and there are all manner of perceptions occurring together – the sounds of their voice, of my own voice, of other people and things in the environment, the smells, the bodily sensations of balance, movement, temperature, my thoughts etc. All these things are occurring simultaneously, and although my attention may wander at times from one to another, or sometimes include several or more things at once, there is never any experience of things being disjointed, or as coming via different mechanisms. Rather it all runs together – a single ongoing, evolving experience of the whole thing.

So when it comes down to it, although we may use our minds to discriminate and categorise various senses, direct experience demonstrates that there is really only ever ONE sense, which might be called the sense of awareness – or even just awareness itself.

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Consciousness and Awareness – What’s the Difference?

September 5th, 2010 39 comments

If you are seeing this picture and understanding what it represents, then you are conscious. This is an indisputable fact. The knowledge of your own consciousness is the one and only fact of which you can be absolutely certain. Everything else that you might think that you know is an inference or assumption, and therefore cannot be known with certainty.

The definition of consciousness that Francis Lucille has often used is based on this fact, and may be stated thus:

Consciousness is whatever is reading these words right now, and understanding them.

This is an experiential definition, and it seems to be necessary to define it this way because consciousness is not a “thing” or object per se, and therefore cannot be defined in terms of other things. Our minds simply cannot grasp the nature of consciousness, because of its lack on tangibility. Hence it can only be pointed to. And yet, it is apparent that consciousness is what we are ourselves. Whenever we refer to “I”, it is this very same consciousness to which we refer. So in the scheme of things, it seems important that we understand it!

An interesting point to note is that, according to Lucille’s definition (and also as he has pointed out himself), there is no distinction between consciousness and awareness. The two words are treated synonymously, and are used interchangeably.

Those of you who have an interest in non-duality will likely also have come across Sri Maharaj Nisargadatta. (A famous book documenting some of his discourses, I Am That (PDF), is available as a free download.) Nisargadatta spoke extensively about consciousness, but he also referred to awareness and made a distinction between the two. The following quote from the book illustrates this especially well.

What you need is to be aware of being aware. Be aware deliberately and consciously, broaden and deepen the field of awareness. You are always conscious of the mind, but you are not aware of yourself as being conscious.

But what exactly is the distinction here? This caused me some confusion, and apparently it has confused others too. The easy way out here might be to remember that we are talking about the intangible, and just paper over the cracks by suggesting that it’s not surprising that there would seem to be inconsistencies between intangible things when we try to conceptualise them. But in fact on further investigation there my be some rationality in the distinction after all. These further quotes from Nisargadatta may make things a little clearer.

The mind produces thoughts ceaselessly, even when you do not look at them. When you know what is going on in your mind, you call it consciousness. This is your waking state — your consciousness shifts from sensation to sensation, from perception to perception, from idea to idea, in endless succession. Then comes awareness, the direct insight into the whole of consciousness, the totality of the mind. The mind is like a river, flowing ceaselessly in the bed of the body; you identify yourself for a moment with some particular ripple and call it: ‘my thought’. All you are conscious of is your mind; awareness is the cognisance of consciousness as a whole.

Awareness is primordial; it is the original state, beginningless, endless, uncaused, unsupported, without parts, without change. Consciousness is on contact, a reflection against a surface, a state of duality. There can be no consciousness without awareness, but there can be awareness without consciousness, as in deep sleep. Awareness is absolute, consciousness is relative to its content; consciousness is always of something. Consciousness is partial and changeful, awareness is total, changeless, calm and silent. And it is the common matrix of every experience.

So the distinction that Nisargadatta is making appears to be between a mental/bodily consciousness (ie. our thoughts and sensory inputs) versus a broader awareness which extends beyond mentations and sensations. And this does appear to have a parallel with Lucille’s description of perception versus apperception (mentioned, for example, here).

“Perception” refers to the experience of an object (phenomenon, that which appears, thought, body sensation or external sense perception), whereas “apperception” refers to the experience of the subject (noumenon, that to which that which appears appears). The human mind is the experience of perceptions, but apperception takes place beyond the mind. (Extract from Francis Answers No 27)

Therefore I propose the following simple explanation of the distinction between consciousness and awareness.

  • Nisargadatta’s “Consciousness” = Lucille’s mentations and perceptions (particular to a body/mind)
  • Nisargadatta’s “Awareness” = Lucille’s consciousness (both perceptions and apperceptions, both particular to a body/mind and universal)

Having sorted out that little conundrum to the (hopefully not overly smug) satisfaction of my own mind, the next question is what an apperception is, and how on earth we can be aware of something that is not within our own mind or body?

Ah the joys of non-dual investigation!

The Joy of Not Knowing Who You Are

April 18th, 2010 No comments

There is a common thread amongst spiritual teachings of various origins that suggests that we should seek to still our minds in order to see the reality that our incessant thought stream prevents us from seeing.

What would we see if we were able to detach ourselves from our thoughts, our memories, our imagination, our desires?

The usual experience is that it is very hard to just stop thinking, beyond a few seconds at least, and that isn’t normally enough to be able to experience anything much different from our normal state of being. Even in meditation it can take extensive practice to achieve any degree of mental stillness. So how do we know if the effort involved would really be worthwhile?

Fortunately there are some transient things that can give you a taste of this state. One of these happens to us every day – waking up.

When we awaken naturally (as opposed to an abrupt awakening by alarm, for example), there will often be a brief, perhaps just very brief, moment upon awakening when we become conscious and have an awareness of self, but our memory of who we are, where we are, or what our current life circumstances are haven’t yet fully arisen. Unless we are awakening from unpleasant dreams, this is usually experienced as a pleasant, perhaps even blissful state. It is only when the memory of “who we are” or what our circumstances are returns that we resume our normal life attitude, which is usually a mixture in various proportions of anticipation of, and memory of, pleasant and unpleasant experiences.

Another one is a little less common – but many people may experience it once in a while, and in my own case rather often. This is when you nearly lose consciousness due to lack of blood flow to the brain. This occurs to me often, mainly when getting up suddenly after sitting down for long periods. This is know as orthostatic hypotension. The exact nature of the experience varies from occasion to occasion, and although it almost never leads to a full loss of consciousness, it does lead to a partial loss of self-identity, and/or awareness of immediate circumstances, typically for several seconds or so.

I usually find this to be an oddly deeply pleasurable experience, and it seems I am not alone in this as the Wikipedia article mentions “euphoria” as a possible symptom. I certainly don’t try to provoke it happening, and always take preventative measures (bending over, lowering my head) as soon as I feel it starting, as I do not want it to lead to a loss of consciousness, the after effects of which are not very pleasant at all. However, what I am suggesting is that what is at the root of the pleasure in this experience,  is the halting of thought and hence forgetting of the self that occurs.

Due to the recent re-invigoration of my meditation regime, I have managed on a few occasions to substantially reduce my thought activity for a time, and the feelings/sensations that came with this were not dissimilar to those that I experience from the other circumstances I’ve just described above – perhaps not quite as intense, but definitely of a similar nature. So there certainly appears to be a pattern in this – and the suggestion that it is our own minds and egos that stand in the way of a blissful existence is looking very plausible, to me.

So while the spiritual teachings beseech us to know ourselves, and we might assume that means to know our own personalities and minds, I would suggest that what it actually means it to know ourselves beyond our personalities and minds.

So who are you when you stop thinking, and stop imagining yourself as a personality?

It may take some courage to let go, but it seems that there is real joy to be had from no longer knowing who you are – or at least who you thought you were, and instead experiencing yourself as pure awareness and being.

Vipassana Meditation Test Drive – The Results

February 15th, 2010 9 comments

The Vipassana meditation course requires that you abstain from any and all alternative meditation or healing practices for the ten day duration. Amongst the reasons given is that mixing different types of meditation will not allow you to fairly assess what effect the Vipassana meditation has had on you. In other words you would not be giving it a fair, or scientific, trial.

I suspect that there are some, if not many, who would find it hard to reconcile science with meditation practices that are usually seen as being of mystical or religious origin. And yet there is no reason at all why someone of scientific bent cannot turn the focus of their scientific mind into the subjective realms just as easily as they do to the objective, concrete world. In fact, there are definite advantages to taking a scientific approach to such things. Self-development and self-discovery can be achieved more quickly and consistently via a scientific approach than via a purely mystical one. In my own estimation, meditation is actually much more of a science than it is a mystical art.

The only difference between the science of subjective versus objective matters is that when you investigate your own subjective experience, you cannot typically cross-check your results with anyone else, as there is never any guarantee that anyone else’s subjective experience will match your own in any given situation. But despite that, I have often been surprised to find definite similarities in the documented experiences of some others, which I have typically stumbled upon when reading around related subjects of interest, some time later. At the time of these experiences, I felt that it seemed a little odd and perhaps unique, and I could not even necessarily be sure that they were directly related to any meditation I have may been practicing. But when I later came across accounts of similar experiences by others, I was able to see that my own experience did indeed fit into a certain pattern or archetypal experience, and that it was in fact a definite “expected” result of the ongoing meditation practices I had been maintaining.

My own meditations generally seem rather uneventful and bland (for example I do not see any light or imagery, hear sounds or voices, or get catapulted into alternative realms of consciousness), but over the course of many years, I have accumulated a few experiences which have stood out to me as especially meaningful or noteworthy – some of which have left me with an enduring shift in attitude or perspective on life and my place in it. And as it happens, one of these noteworthy things happened during this very meditation retreat. And once again, it was only afterward, when I was reading the Wikipedia entry on Vipassana, that I saw recounted the experience of someone else who had been through a rather similar experience.

At the time of the experience I did realise that it was a significant event, and was fully aware that attending such an intense meditation retreat provided an environment in which such things probably happen more frequently than in the normal course of events. But it had seemed to be something that was fairly unique to me and my own stage of unfoldment – rather than something which, it is now apparent, is specifically what Vipassana meditation is intended to convey to the practicer ie. an insight into the human condition, our collective, mutually inter-dependent misery and suffering, and our need for liberation.

That one precious, deeply insightful and heartfelt experience was worth a thousand meditation retreats. But beyond that, I must also say that, despite some battles with the arising and processing of some previously subconscious issues, the aftermath has also been very positive.

During the drive home from the retreat, I felt a sense of inner peace and tranquility which was bordering on the blissful. Even when I encountered the stop/start snarled traffic of Newtown, along with the odd irate, horn-blowing, shouting driver, my sense of peace remained entirely undisturbed. I was merely an observer, remaining fully alert and aware as a driver, and yet totally unperturbed by it all, being totally indifferent to how long it may take to get through all the traffic, or even how many other irate drivers I might encounter.

Since then my level of peace has settled to a slightly more “normal” level, and was even disturbed by a couple of periods of mild anxiety as I faced the 300+ emails that had accumulated during my absence. But overall, in the eight days since my return, I have felt unusually calm, centred and strong, and able to deal with work-related issues more powerfully and efficiently than before.

I am so encouraged and by this change that I have decided to continue the Vipassana meditation technique for the foreseeable future, despite the recommendation that one spend two hours each day practicing it. In reality, the inconvenience of fitting this into the daily routine is minuscule when compared with the benefit. And of course it is a benefit not just for myself – but also for everyone else I come into contact with. Why inflict anxiety or discontent on others, when you can spread a calm and peaceful enjoyment of life instead?

Having read this, if you are still not persuaded to try meditation, or encouraged to increase the depth of your practice if you already do, then I can only have failed to express myself properly. Your liberation is at hand – all you have to do is dare!

Meditation and Tiredness

February 11th, 2010 2 comments

During the meditation retreat I was not entirely well for several days. In fact I lost my voice. Given that it was a silent retreat this hardly mattered of course! And I suspect that I had lost it for a couple of days before I even noticed. It was only when the meditation teacher asked for some brief feedback to ascertain whether the technique was being properly practiced that I suddenly found I was voiceless, and had to whisper instead to make myself understood. Its quite funny really.

But one of the symptoms of the illness, apart from loss of voice, was some fatigue and tiredness. I could tell that it was not quite the same tiredness that comes from lack of sleep, and despite the draconian course schedule, I never had any trouble waking up or getting up promptly at 4am each day.

The tiredness, when it did come, seemed to occur mainly late mornings and then again early to mid afternoons – and almost always during a meditation session. Hence I had plenty of opportunity to experience the transition between normal wakefulness and drowsiness/sleep whilst in meditation. And these are my observations on it.

My first observation was that the transition is quite rapid, and there are no obvious early warning signs. One minute I was mentally alert, then next I was on the verge of sleep, and could easily have nodded off there and then I had let myself, and had I also not been in an upright sitting position, of course. However, very quickly I saw a pattern to the process.

  • The first sign was that I would start to see vague imagery. This was a clear distinction from being in meditation because this particular technique does not involve any visualisation at all – instead it is all about sensation and bodily awareness. And although I can’t be sure (because my eyes were closed) I got the impression that the imagery always occurred in the right eye only.
  • The second sign was that I would get a flckering of that imagery on and off quite rapidly, between vague white and black/nothingness – multiple times per second.
  • There third sign was that I would suddenly realise that I had lost my place in the meditation, and could not immediately recall where I had been and where I was intending to go next. In fact I suspect that this may have indicated that I had already fallen into sleep, even if perhaps only a very, very brief (micro?) sleep.
  • A fourth sign, although it very rarely got to that stage, was the experience of a jolt in posture to effect a recovery from a slumping head.

Having recognised this process and these signs, I was able to be on the lookout for it, and as soon as I noticed any sign of imagery forming I would deliberately labour my breathing slightly. This would normally cause the imagery to disappear again within 3 or 4 breaths, although during the worst of my tired periods I would have to do this repeatedly over a period of 10 to 20 minutes before I naturally seemed to pass through that tiredness phase, and return to normal wakeful alertness again.

However, I must also admit, that on a few of the occasions that this happened when I was meditating alone in my room, I did succumb to the urge to just lie down and have a brief sleep. But that only after having made a conscious decision that it would be in my best interest to do, rather than just allowing myself to doze off by default.

So all this may seem utterly trivial to some. But for me, it is all about a fascination I have with consciousness, and the changes and transitions in it that we experience. What causes them? Can we control them? After all, this is what dictates the entirety of our experience of life!

In various spiritual/mystical texts there are references to a state referred to as “continuity of consciousness”. Supposedly, this state can be attained as a yogic skill, along with various others, by advanced practitioners of meditation. The defining characteristic of this state is to be able to maintain consciousness not only during normal waking hours, but also during sleep. Those who have this skill are able to observe, interpret and query their own dreams, and have perfect recall of the dream state and its content.

So perhaps my observations on my own wake/sleep are my first baby steps towards discovering just how to prevent the loss of consciousness that we normally experience when we fall into sleep. At least I would like to think so. 🙂