Consciousness has always been a topic of interest to meditators. More recently, consciousness has increasingly become the focus of scientists worldwide. Attendance at conferences exploring consciousness is increasing. Robust, testable, scientific theories about consciousness are being proposed. Yet, while theories that attempt to measure consciousness, such as Integrated Information Theory, are taking a step in the right direction, what they are measuring is not consciousness itself but rather the complexity of the mind.
The time is ripe for science to differentiate consciousness from mind.
So… what is consciousness? Let us start to answer this question by first examining the relationship between perception and the mind.
According to the theory of visual perception, you see a physical object like this screen because photons ricochet off the screen, strike your retina, and send an electrochemical impulse to your brain. There, in the dark, damp, mushy brain, a three dimensional world bathed in light is created according to the nature of the impulse.
But where is the light that the brain supposedly creates? According to our theory, the light of the luminous sun at high noon is created in the brain. No anatomist has found light approaching such intensity in a neuron. Notably, all our living cells, as well as cells in plants and animals, do produce electromagnetic waves called biophotons. However, these have been been measured to be weak, not approaching even the levels of light you are experiencing as you read this.
A further problem in the current theory of perception is that the brain itself is an object of perception not fundamentally different from other objects. If this screen is a projection, then the brain is a projection as well. What is projecting the brain? Our theories of perception are useful, and remarkably incomplete.
Enter mind, stage left. While mind is traditionally thought of as our subjective thoughts and feelings, in fact it is much more. It is the set of all experiences. This includes the experience of thought, emotion, memory, intuition, desire, identity, relationship, sensation, and perception, including the experience of perceiving so-called “physical” things. It includes the experience of individuality, separateness, space, and time. And it includes the experience of light. All experiences, gross and subtle, are the mind.
The world is entirely mental. This is testable through meditative introspection.
If everything we experience is the mind, including our own sense of identity, what could possibly be left? What could consciousness be?
Let’s zoom in on the mind a bit more. Every experience of the mind has three parts: an experiencer, an experienced object, and the relationship between the two, which we call experiencing. For example, when I eat spaghetti, I am the experiencer, the spaghetti is the object of my experience, and tasting or eating it is the relationship between the two. This triadic nature of experience is ubiquitous for all experiences. Even in meditation, there is a meditator, the object of meditation (which may be as subtle as a thought or even silence), and there is the relationship between the two, which is attention.
There is only one experience which is not triadic: unitary experience. In unitary experience, the experiencer and the experienced object are integrated. They are not separate, and hence any sense of separation and limitation is absent. This unitary experience is consciousness. Another way to say this is that consciousness is not an experience in the traditional sense.
Consciousness has no parts, no distinguishing features within itself, just as water doesn’t distinguish among ocean, wave, puddle, or ripple.
Ocean, wave, and ripple have unique characteristics, varying from large and subtle to small and mischievous, but water does not recognize them as separate or different from itself as there is nothing in those entities that is different from water in the slightest.
Similarly, consciousness is seamless, a world apart from ever-changing experiences.
Water itself seems to exist at a different level of reality, where nothing but water exists, or more precisely, where water is existence itself. If water is removed from the ripple, not an iota of ripple can exist. But if the activity of the ripple is removed from water, water remains just as much water as it was when the activity of ripple had been present.
If you ask an insightful ripple that meditates regularly who she is, she will say “I am an activity (or form, or part) of water” and she will be right from the standpoint of a subtle mind. If you ask water about the ripple, water would say, “Huh? What’s a ripple? I alone am.”
If we say that the ripple is the activity of water, we are not doing justice to water’s perspective. If we say there is only water and there is no ripple, we are not doing justice to the ripple’s perspective (or her friends’: ocean, wave, puddle, rain, tsunami, etc.) The statement that best acknowledges the ripple’s experience while also pointing out the next stage in the ripple’s evolution is “The ripple is the apparent activity of water.”
Similarly, mind is the apparent activity of consciousness.
That statement is actually a pointer. If the ripple understands the pointer, it knows itself to be an activity. It knows that its own separate identity is dependent on its activity. If activity stops, the separate identity of the ripple stops, and any self-imposed difference from water will disappear. And slowly the insightful ripple becomes more still, until activity ceases, and the separate ripple loses its boundary. When the boundary dissolves, it is seen that the ripple was indeed an appearance all along, with no existence apart from water. Once this is seen, the apparent activity of the ripple can re-emerge, along with that of the wave, river, waterfall, etc., yet the knowledge that water alone exists shines through these appearances.
Similarly, mind is the apparent activity of consciousness. From the perspective of pure consciousness, there is no mind, no fluctuation, no activity. Consciousness is dimensionless, boundless, seamless. It is infinity. From the perspective of the subtle mind, there is activity, there is fluctuation. To still the subtle mind, the pointer “mind is the apparent activity of consciousness” is given. The subtle mind then relaxes and relinquishes activity, and as a result merges into consciousness. The mind can then re-emerge without forgetting that it is only the apparent activity of consciousness, because it doesn’t see itself as a separate entity any longer.
Consciousness is the heart of reality. It cannot be objectified by science, although science can and will reach the outer limits of the mind. The physical world is a subset of that mind, and the mind itself is an apparent activity of consciousness. This is testable in the laboratory of your own mind. To know consciousness as one’s own nature beyond concepts, beliefs, perceptions, and personality is to know reality itself. The answer to “What is consciousness?” resides within and beyond each one of us.