raises us above other known sentient beings is our
ability to be conscious of our own consciousness. But
what does this mean, scientifically?
“It is now widely accepted that all knowledge, from the
beginning of time, is available to each of us, an
intelligence that is carried at the cellular, subatomic
level. Highly evolved individuals who have touched the
hem of the eternal and communed with the infinite
through their higher consciousness, made that quantum
leap but have been unable to transfer their
understanding due to limitations imposed by language.
Because language is incomplete and fragmentary, merely
registering a stage in the average advance beyond the
ape mentality. But all of us do have flashes of insight
beyond meanings already stabilized in etymology and
We are largely unaware of the traffic of 'thoughts' within our heads
including those that guide most of our living actions.
actions that keep us alive, such as breathing, seeing, hearing,
touching and even tasting, take place without our conscious
participation or stopping to think about them.
It is interesting to note that most of our purposeful behavior
happens without the aid of consciousness. We even solve most of our
routine problems unconsciously. It is when a purpose or result can
be achieved by alternative means that consciousness is called upon.
In other words, at the routine level of existence, we do not employ
consciousness except when we are altering our actions or thoughts
from the routine, for a purpose.
Rudolf Steiner believed animal consciousness to be the experience of
desires, hopes and fears without self-awareness and the ability to
view the body and those emotions from the point of view of an inner
observer. He thought plants too have a form of consciousness,
perhaps resembling human sleep.
The German philosopher Friedrich von Schelling (1775-1854) wrote:
"Mind sleeps in stone, dreams in the
plant, awakes in the animal and becomes conscious in man."
What raises us above other known sentient beings is our ability to
be conscious of our own consciousness. But what does this mean,
Consciousness, according to western science, has its roots in the
mind, which in turn is seated in the brain. The human brain, with
its highly developed frontal cortex, is divided into three distinct
parts and includes the cerebrum, cerebellum and the medulla
oblongata or stem.
The latter is a remnant of our reptilian ancestry
with the ocean as its original habitat.
"Much of today's public anxiety
about science is the apprehension that we may be overlooking the
whole by an endless, obsessive preoccupation with the parts,"
says physician Lewis Thomas.
The following view is an attempt to
avoid the above pitfall.
"To learn is to eliminate," says neurobiologist
From the embryonic stage itself, there is a furious amount of
editing at work to fine-tune our brain content.
scientists to discover that our growing up and learning process is
not of adding new material so much as editing existing ones. Nerve
cells in the brain die without being replaced in our infancy (or in
degenerative brain disease as adults), although they appear to
remain fairly stable later through a lifetime of healthy
The fact remains that the brain is the only organ that
does not grow new cells to replace those that are lost.
Human consciousness is a cerebral ability with inputs from the
approximately 50,000 million cells that constitute an adult body.
There is a growing understanding of the intelligence in individual
cells in living matter.
The human body is incredibly complex and
each of its cells is in constant communication not only with cells
that perform similar functions but also with every other cell in the
body. Our consciousness probably results from assimilating all this
data and arriving at choices or solutions. Our present state of
consciousness may be likened to the tip of the iceberg of potential
human awareness, of itself and of the universe.
To arrive at consciousness, we have to enter the areas of the brain
that contain memory, information and emotion. Human memories go
back, to the primal soup and perhaps beyond, to the void before
material creation. Scientists of various disciplines are involved in
a worldwide research project that is trying to map all of the genes
in the human DNA sequence.
Another project, not so widely
publicized, known as the Human Consciousness Project is already well
under way to map the gamut of human consciousness including the
unconscious. The latter project is also multidisciplinary and
researchers around the world are piecing together what they call a
spectrum of human consciousness.
This includes: instinct, ego and
spirit; pre-personal, personal and transpersonal; subconscious,
self-conscious and super-conscious; thus, no state of consciousness
is dismissed from its embrace. Undisputed evidence is already in
hand that such a spectrum does exist.
The first concept associated with consciousness is 'awareness'. We
are conscious when we are aware. This is immediately seen to be not
quite true. We may be aware, for instance, without really being
conscious of being aware. Awareness is, therefore, only a part of
Other known aspects of consciousness are:
Do We Know?
It is now widely accepted that all knowledge (heavily edited to
include only that which is useful to human life), from the beginning
of time, is available to each of us, an intelligence that is carried
at the cellular, subatomic level.
Highly evolved individuals who
have touched the hem of the eternal and communed with the infinite
through their higher consciousness, made that quantum leap but have
been unable to transfer their understanding due to limitations
imposed by language.
Because language is incomplete and fragmentary,
merely registering a stage in the average advance beyond the ape
But all of us do have flashes of insight beyond meanings
already stabilized in etymology and grammar.
Our brain is domineering when it comes to coping with reality.
sometimes see things not as they really are, sometimes invent
categories that do not exist and sometimes fail to see things that
are really there. There are people who have never seen or heard of
an aircraft and will not be able to imagine it and a real airplane
overhead will be distorted in their minds, creating alternative
To recognize that what we call reality is only a consensus reality
(only what we have agreed to call reality) is to recognize that we
can perceive only what we can conceive. Captain Cook's ship was
invisible to the Tahitians because they could not conceive of such a
Joseph Pearce explains this best:
"Man's mind mirrors a
universe that mirrors man's mind."
On the other hand, if a seed of
imagination is sowed, a germ of an idea can be planted contrary to
existing evidence. The seed will grow and sooner or later produce
data to confirm or deny the idea.
According to neurobiologist William Calvin, the human mind (in all
likelihood, the seat of consciousness), located in the brain, is so
complex that we have only just begun to understand bits and pieces
It is remarkable that despite the advancements of ancient
civilizations in India, China, Mesopotamia and
Greece, the discovery
of the crucial importance of the brain as the seat of thought and
action did not feature in human knowledge until barely two centuries
ago. The navel, the liver and the heart were revered instead by
different cultures, at various times.
Consciousness is the most advanced event in the history of
evolution. But we cannot separate it from the spirit, mind or brain.
In western science, to put it simply, consciousness is the output of
the mind, which is an aspect of the brain. Consciousness depends
heavily on memory, which is very tricky and can be full of holes,
patched up, more often than not, by fantasy.
Memory is also
selective and, often, faulty. We paint rosy pictures of incidents,
events and people when it suits us and we also do the exact
opposite. The fact that some of our memories (true ones, because no
imagination is involved) go back several billion years to the
procrustean age while others belong to just a few moments ago, only
adds to its mysteriousness.
Muddying the waters even further is our emotions. Our feelings color
our consciousness as much as our memories do. Emotions are really
reactions to external stimuli. You cannot feel an emotion in a
vacuum. Even loneliness presumes that you have known togetherness.
So, it appears that our consciousness needs the 'other' even if the
other is your own mirror image or parts of your body/bodily
functions. It needs an external environment; it needs language, an
interaction with something outside itself.
Consciousness therefore presumes an
entity that is aware of 'something'
Understanding Our Own Minds
What does this mean? To understand something, first of all we need
evidence of its existence. Here, therefore, we are trying to use
something (the mind) to understand itself and produce evidence of
its own existence, somewhat similar to the Drawing Hands of
that depicts a self-drawn drawing. An inherent
paradox where something in the system jumps out and acts on the
system as if it existed outside it.
And when we examine our own
minds, this is exactly what happens.
According to Godel's
Incompleteness Theorem, understanding our own minds is impossible,
yet we have persisted in seeking this knowledge through the ages!
The framework of consciousness is thought. Its shuttle is random
selection and its warp and woof are memories and emotions.
consciousness, unlike awareness, includes a series of choices.
American psychologist E.L. Thorndyke called this the method of
trial, error, and accidental success. Modern AI (artificial
intelligence) calls it 'generate and test'. Applied to our thought
process, the chance creation concept goes back to Xenophanes in
Our thoughts begin at random, our mind taking the first opening
before it. Perceiving a false route, it retraces its steps, taking
another direction. By a kind of artificial selection we perfect our
thought substantially, making it more logical as we go along. With
enough experience, the brain comes to contain a model of the world;
an idea suggested by Kenneth Craik in his book The Nature of
In an average day, we are conscious of several million things.
Further, the conscious mind at a higher level is able to free itself
from order and predictability to explore every possibility with its
rich variety of choices and opportunities.
This leads us to levels
From the conscious awareness of an infant to its immediate
environment, recognizing its mother as apart from others, for
instance, levels of consciousness rise as we grow.
Colin Wilson suggests at least eight degrees of consciousness, from
Level 0 to 7. They are:
Level 0—deep sleep
Level 1—dreaming or hypnagogic
Level 2—mere awareness or
unresponsive waking state
Level 3—self awareness that is
dull and meaningless
Level 4—passive and reactive,
normal consciousness that regards life 'as a grim battle'
Level 5—an active, spontaneous,
happy consciousness in which life is exciting and
Level 6—a transcendent level
where time ceases to exist. Wilson does take note of further
levels of consciousness as experienced by mystics but gives
Canadian psychologist Richard M. Bucke, in his book Cosmic
Consciousness, coined this term.
It is a transpersonal mode of
consciousness, an awareness of the universal mind and one's unity
with it. Its prime characteristic is a consciousness of the life and
order in the universe. An individual who at attains this state is
often described as 'Enlightened' and such a person is also said to
have a sense of immortality, not of attaining it but of already
having it. Burke saw this state of consciousness as the next stage
in human evolution, very much as spiritualists have always seen it.
Indian yogis and mystics classify the seven states of consciousness
They point out that human beings normally experience
only three states: sleeping, dreaming and waking.
fleetingly you experience turya, literally the fourth state, or
transcendental consciousness, commonly known as samadhi.
state coexists and stabilizes with the other three, that is the
fifth state, where I-consciousness expands to become cosmic
The sixth state is God consciousness whereby you see
God everywhere, in everything.
The last is unity consciousness: what
is within is also outside—pure consciousness, and nothing else is.
Spiritually, consciousness is as vast as the universe, both known
and unknown. The potential power of this level of consciousness has
been merely touched upon and that too by a few mystics.
Consciousness at this level becomes capable of:
defying accepted scientific physical laws
giving us a glimpse of
probable future developments in, among other things,
Historically, great movements in any area emerge from a collective
It is not surprising that in any given field of
activity, great ideas do not occur in isolation. Despite an idea
germinating in an individual mind, it is interesting to note that
the same idea strikes two or more thinkers, geographically far
apart, around the same time. Collective consciousness results from
At any given time, collective
consciousness is actively operational in a group as small as the
family and as large as half the global population.
The power of
collective consciousness has not been fully explored or appreciated,
except perhaps in times of great distress when 'prayers' are offered
by a group of individuals for a particular reason and the prayers
Paradox of Consciousness
The conscious human mind is capable of great good and equally
extraordinary evil. It is only for the sake of simplicity that we
talk of levels in the form of tiers with an upward hierarchy. In
fact, consciousness, while rooted in causal linearity (within the
Darwinian evolutionary framework) is dynamic, free moving and
The greatest discoveries and inventions were arrived at
intuitively. The genius sees what we all see except that s/he thinks
about it differently. The evil genius does exactly the same.
"The supreme paradox of all thought is the attempt
to discover something that thought cannot think."
A conscious human
knows something and he knows that he knows it (ad infinitum). The
paradox of consciousness is not that we are aware of ourselves but
of other things as well, including those that do not constitute the
'real world'. Of course, when we 'conceive' or imagine something
'unreal' even our farthest imagination cannot transcend 'known'
symbolism, which is why there are some things that defy definition.
One of these is 'consciousness' itself.
Consciousness is a fresh fruit of evolution and our most prized
possession. It is consciousness that sets us apart from the opulent
variety of earth-life and puts upon us an onus of responsibility. It
takes us on incredible journeys and has given us the gifts of
insight and transcendence. The same kind of process that gives the
earth abundant life allows us to have a sense of self, to
contemplate the world, to forecast the future and make ethical
Each of us has under our control a miniature world,
continuously evolving, making constructs unique to our own minds. In
the same way that life itself unfolded, our mental life is
progressively enriched, enabling each of us to create our own world.
The universe was born from chaos billions of light years ago and
evolved through random selection, and is doing so even today.
(and people) are born and die for no better reason than that they
simply do. Some stars live longer than others do; some support a
host of satellites. Our sun is one of the latter and our fragile
planet is just a rock that accidentally came from the sun and
eventually became home to an abundance of life forms.
As life forms
evolved through random selection, humans emerged on the top of the
food chain and from there, in the blink of an eye, here we are,
seriously and consciously looking for answers and meanings in the
universe around us.