A blog post can’t be expected to explain consciousness. For that matter, neither can a book. Maybe even a lifetime of work is insufficient to fully explore this most important of life’s experiences. For now, maybe we can rephrase the question from the very removed and abstract toward the more immediate and personal. From “What is consciousness” or even “Am I conscious?” to “What is my consciousness?” This less direct form of the question allows us to find balance between the analytical and the individual, leading usefully to something that is intimately personal.
Let us start at the beginning: Although the seeds of consciousness must have been present in me when I was born, I certainly cannot claim to remember its existence either then or shortly after birth. So when did it arrive? How do we first encounter consciousness in our lives? How do we remember that moment of the creation of “my consciousness”?
My own personal memory of the moment is associated with a Christmas at the young age of around 4 or 5. I was shocked “awake” at the sight of Santa Claus– before I was “snug in my bed.” The visions of Santa passing me by awoke something in me that stays to this day – “I was there!” The memory is locked in my mind - frozen in time. But what language do we have to refer to such personal awakenings of ourselves? It is difficult.
We easily use language to share our interactions with our physical world. Our common language is built primarily on such interactions. By drawing on past experiences, such as the taste of a great wine, a bite into a freshly picked apple, or the poignant smell of cinnamon at any time, we come to an agreement that we are talking about similar states and experiences. Even for some higher human emotions such as love, we can agree on what is meant by the phrase “They are in love” without quibbling too much about how their love relates to anything that I’ve felt in my life. From the phrase alone one can make reasonable predictions about how two people in love will act in situations. Yet it is not so clear why we should use the phrase “head over heels in love” as a means of communicating love? This second phrase highlights the difficulties in communicating the more than physical aspects of life.
But when it comes to the most important thing that makes us human, that of consciousness, we do not seem to have the language required. We mistrust our fleeting sensations and experiences of it. Descriptors such as “shocked”, “calm”, “satisfied”, “connected”, etc., are pulled from our other more daily experiences to try and capture some of the special nature of our experiences of consciousness. In communicating the experience to others, we rely on metaphor and analogue. We rely on phrases such as, “It was like being aware of everything” or “Time seemed to stand still.”
We seem no better prepared to discuss consciousness with today’s language than we are to understand what ancient cultures of Sumer and Egypt might have used to capture and communicate their experiences and understandings from at least 5,000 years ago. The ancients drew on images that they understood. They spoke of journeys through the netherworld, talking with the gods and interacting with snakes. The stars and the sky play a large role in these communications of the Ancients. Many of their images have been carried forward through the ages and can be found in modern religious and philosophical concepts. With the right approach, they can be seen to capture useful images that contribute to my search for “my consciousness?”
In our book (Dickie and Boudreau 2015) we explore a number of creation myths that we see as relating to the awakening of consciousness; the creation of ourselves not the creation of the physical world. We work in the book to make best use of the languages of Sumer, Ancient Egypt and Hebrew to explore what they may have tried to record and pass on in regards to this awakening of our awareness of ourselves? It is not easy.
Skipping forward to modern times we see that the efforts to address human consciousness continues today. Needleman (2012) summarizes consciousness as humans’ birthright. Edinger (1984) states, “The purpose of human life is the creation of consciousness.” Needleman notes that although it might be our birthright, it doesn’t come easily. It involves suffering and yearning. Such thoughts of internal work and struggle are not easy to find in the mainstream daily activities of the Western World where one’s purpose is more often measured in terms of financial wealth and external security.
Needleman (2012) continues his development of thoughts on consciousness into a very personal sphere. He distances the concept of God from that of the distant grouchy old man on a cloud to present the God concept as a more natural all surrounding motivation of our world. Kauffman (2010) arrives at a concept of God that is tied to the amazing creativity that we experience in the World, in Nature and in ourselves. In both cases they talk of a very personal, intimate relationship.
The ancient methods of meditation are clearly directed at exploring one’s personal consciousness. The new concept of “mindfulness” that is finding some current mainstream acceptance may be a useful way forward in the general education and exposure of humans to their more sensitive internal experiences and movements.
In some kind of very brief summary, we can say that the characteristics of consciousness that help me to answer the question “What is my consciousness?” include:
- Remembering from moments of grace in early life
- Requiring “conscious labor and intentional suffering” (Gurdjief)
- Fleeting (Plotinus)
- Experiencing life at a higher level that helps us distinguish conflicting lower energies.
But nothing fully captures what it is that makes me a human being - different from a rock or a bird. The challenge is to express that quality to myself as much as to others. And so I continue my work to experience Self.