Consciousness a Feature of the Universe

I try, on the anniversary of my discovery of America, to reassess my understanding of reality.  Last year I saw it as an ever changing energy field where what “we experience as the Earth, our own body, atoms and so on do not in fact have fixed boundaries or any intrinsic nature”.

What, though, is experience?  It’s the product of consciousness, but what is consciousness?

We might say anything is conscious that grows, adapts to its environment and can communicate.  Trees are goal-seeking and communicate with each other, though, and it’s a stretch to declare them conscious.

A more stringent definition includes subjective properties of experience, qualia, that occur inside our minds.  That excludes trees, but what about animals?  We don’t really know  which animals, if any, have qualia.  Explaining how and why we have qualia is the famously hard problem of consciousness.  Why and how is our existence something we experience? 

What in fact is this thing we call mind where qualia arise?  Dictionaries tell us mind is “The element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought.”

But the mind also thwarts consciousness.  It shows us things that do not exist.  My mind did that, for instance, high above the Kathmandu Valley, showing me first a man in black, then a bear and then another menacing man, not one of whom was there.

All that’s puzzling enough but is mind a product of our brain or is its substrate outside our body?  Each of us arises from the universal energy field that does not have boundaries.  Could mind be an aspect of that energy field and also be without boundaries?  Could consciousness be a feature of the universe, like gravity?

And if mind is a product of our brain, is its scope localized there?  Do its inputs come only from the body of which the brain is part?  Dreams sometimes seem to incorporate real events we could not be aware of via our traditional methods of perception: taste, sight, touch, smell, and sound.

Also, do actions our mind initiates occur only via physical links in our body?  And are its operations even constrained by time?  The CIA published a summary of a great deal of research indicating that we can both initiate action remotely and see events before they occur.

Most of us have at least some experience of knowing what someone is thinking before they speak or when they are out of contact.  Species that flock communicate with each other so rapidly that shared thought seems the only explanation.  And there’s so much more —  some dogs, for example, know when their human master is about to have an epileptic fit.

There is a range of phenomena related to consciousness that don’t fit with the view that our mind is localized to our body:

  • Remote viewing — the ability to know something that is happening at a distance without the use of the physical senses
  • Remote influencing — the apparent ability to alter physical manifestation in an intended direction without a chain of physically causal events
  • Precognitive dreams — a person dreams about events that happen in the future
  • Survival hypothesis — consciousness continues after physical death

We call those phenomena anomalous because they should not exist if matter is the way we experience it, made up of continuously existent, indivisible atoms located within an absolute space and time.  If matter is that way we could, if we knew all the equations governing the spatial positions of fundamental particles as a function of time along with the initial conditions, know everything about reality including all that happened in the past and that will occur in the future.

Those phenomena are not incongruous, however, with our understanding of quantum physics.  Particles appear and disappear and we can know only the probability of their occurrence, space is not fixed and time is not absolute.  What we categorize as anomalous phenomena are inconsistent with the world we experience but not with the underlying reality.

What that suggests is, phenomena we consider anomalous but which have often been observed could be real aspects of consciousness.

Increasingly over the past year I’ve been puzzling over the Buddhist teaching that names the energy field I wrote about last year dharmakaya and the forms we experience nirmanakaya.  There are three kayas; dharmakaya, sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya.  I’ve been trying to see the nature of sambhogakaya.

My teacher explained sambhogakaya this way, that it manifests as five divine wisdoms:

  • All encompassing space that projects consciousness and is the source of compassion
  • Mirror-like wisdom, the purified form of “form”
  • Equality wisdom, bias toward none
  • Discernment wisdom, perception, and
  • Action wisdom, the purified form of “concept”

I’ve been thinking especially about the first wisdom, all encompassing space that projects consciousness and is the source of compassion.  My Buddhist practice is increasing my compassion, my urge to act kindly.  It just happens.  I also grow more aware of how self-absorbed I still am.

What’s happening is, I’m slowly shedding mental habits that obscure reality.  Our mind matches fragments of what we perceive against its gallery of pictures, stories and concepts, then we act on what it in fact made up.  That’s how above Kathmandu I saw creatures instead of what was there.

But why would fabricating less of what I experience result in compassion growing stronger?  Compassion must be an attribute of consciousness.  As I grow more conscious the natural result is I act more kindly.

When we can’t quite define a word it can be helpful to consider its opposite.   The dictionary tells us that opposites of conscious include unaware and unresponsive.  A related word is alive so another opposite of conscious is dead.  The deepest opposite of consciousness, however, is dreaming.

When we are dreaming our mind is not in touch, or very little in touch, with its environment.  Our fully conscious mind processes its environment accurately, however, providing us with a pure perception in response to which we are naturally happy and kind.

Consciousness was missing from my model of existence last year.  I hope to have fewer questions about it next year.

2 comments on “Consciousness a Feature of the Universe

  1. Absorbing, entertaining and thought-provoking as always! Early in the post you mention dreams, and I started to wonder if dreams are generated from within or are external inputs delivered in a way that differs from our usual senses. Toward the end you wrote:

    “When we are dreaming our mind is not in touch, or very little in touch, with its environment. Our fully conscious mind processes its environment accurately, however, providing us with a pure perception in response to which we are naturally happy and kind.”

    Perhaps a dream simply puts us in touch with a part of our environment not accessible in our “waking” state.

    • When we were raising sheep, the big ram escaped from his stall one night and spent the rest of the night rampaging up and down the aisle. Felicity and I both dreamed of big fierce animals that night. Mine was a ram, hers a polar bear. It was not until I went to the barn to feed them the next morning that I found the ram who, luckily for me, was by that time quite tired.

      Did I somehow sense the ram’s escape and incorporate it into a dream that Felicity picked up then re-imagined a polar bear? Or did we both sense the ram’s escape but her imagination is stronger than my more literal one? Or what? In either case, the experience is consistent with your closing thought.

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