Consciousness. We don't think about it, we don't act upon it. It's just there. We awaken in the morning and go to the bathroom and do those things, make coffee, eat a donut, take the dog out … and so goes our entire day. At the end, we take a shower, put on our night clothes, get into bed and after some time fall asleep. The next day, we do it all over again. With variation we all go through our daily rituals. And we do them, well, pretty much mindlessly. We don't question them, we don't consider the nature of who it is who's doing them, why we do them, or even how we got to the place that put us in the position to be doing them in the first place. In many ways, we are as robots, acting out the rules and regulations programmed into us by the conditioning of our environment and our genetic disposition.

A Chan Buddhist Perspective

"Attainment of consciousness is culture in the broadest sense, and self-knowledge is therefore the heart and essence of this process. The Oriental attributes unquestionably divine significance to the self, and according to the ancient Christian view self-knowledge is the road to knowledge of God. -- Carl Jung

"A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive." -- Albert Einstein

"Life unquestioned is a life unexplored. Where's the adventure in that?" -- Jian Xing Hang

Consciousness. We don't think about it, we don't act upon it. It's just there. We awaken in the morning and go to the bathroom and do those things, make coffee, eat a donut, take the dog out … and so goes our entire day. At the end, we take a shower, put on our night clothes, get into bed and after some time fall asleep. The next day, we do it all over again. With variation we all go through our daily rituals. And we do them, well, pretty much mindlessly. We don't question them, we don't consider the nature of who it is who's doing them, why we do them, or even how we got to the place that put us in the position to be doing them in the first place. In many ways, we are as robots, acting out the rules and regulations programmed into us by the conditioning of our environment and our genetic disposition.

So it seems.

What is consciousness? We take it for granted, but does that mean we know what it is? Does consciousness exist? Is it a concept manufactured by us to imbue ourselves with an aura of superiority to other forms of life, or did the concept arise to describe something otherwise ineffable? Is consciousness a pure principal of living things? Is consciousness there even if we are not aware of it? When we die, does consciousness remain, indifferent to the change of state of our corporeal form?

If we were to consider consciousness to be the sum total experience of mentation, as many do, then the term has no meaning other than as an expression of the cumulative mental processes themselves that lead to the experiencing of feelings, thoughts, sensations, etc. In this case, asking what is the nature of consciousness would be no different from asking what is the nature of seeing, or of thinking, or of creating ideas. We can define the physical processes easily enough, but their nature? That remains mysterious from an ontological point of view.

Yet oddly, we use the term as if it's obvious what it is, and equally as obvious that everyone else has the same notions about it as we do. Yet stop to reflect on its nature and many of us are left more than a little puzzled. If we act as mechanized beings carrying out our actions mindlessly, for example, how much of our Being is actually conscious, and how much is … well, unconscious, or even non-conscious? Can we live our lives and not be conscious? Are there "degrees" of consciousness? Is consciousness like a transistor, turning on in accordance with some external force applied, and off when it's not? Or is consciousness just a term we use to describe our state of being alive: "I live, therefore I am conscious."?

Some say that consciousness arises from language. But what constitutes language? Is it words, expressions, music, visual cues (sign language), intuition, percussion ("clicks", as we sometimes describe dolphin's complex communication structures)?

Or does consciousness simply allow for the acquisition of language? If so, are ants conscious in that they are able to communicate with the other ants in their colony through the selective secretion of pheromones? The extremely complex social structure in which ants live is well known, their methods of communication at least partially understood, but at what point would we say an ant is conscious?

Some say that consciousness is fully independent of language. A child born unable to speak or use any form of expressive language is still conscious they say; it is her sensory organs that don't work, or a part of her brain that is not able to allow her to express herself that is the culprit. When a loved one slips into a coma, we sit nearby day after day talking to him, reading stories, convinced that he can hear us and understand what we are saying, only unable to respond to us. Do our instincts tell us that consciousness exists independently of our ability to use expressive language? Or are our hopes and fears simply misleading us?

Some argue that consciousness has nothing at all to do with language, that a worm is conscious: it knows that when it rains it must move toward the surface to avoid drowning; it knows which direction to turn in the ground to get the most nutrients to grow and sustain it. Whether this kind of behavior is instinct or conscious behavior is an entirely unanswerable question and open to endless debate, for we will never be able to get into the "mind" of a worm to learn the answer. [1]

Ultimately, the only consciousness we can legitimately talk about is our own personal consciousness, whatever it is that means to us. To speak about another's consciousness is projection and conjecture, with no testable or verifiable means of substantiation. It's akin to listening to Mahler's Fifth Symphony and assuming that everyone who listens to it experiences the same joy, or assuming that everyone who bites into a ripe juicy peach experiences the same sensory delights of flavor, texture and aroma. Is reality, then, inherently confined to our own personal interpretations, or is there an unbiased reality "out there" that exists independently; that is, is there a non-subjective consciousness that evades our reasoning and prevents us from talking about it? If so, are there other ways to know it?

Hopefully we humans are growing beyond our old elitist conceptions about consciousness: that tendency some have to label some beings as "conscious" (like humans) and other's as not. Such distinctions likely have more to do with "species superiority" (and sometimes religious idealism) than scientific evidence or spiritual insight. History has demonstrated repeatedly that the human race enjoys placing itself at the fulcrum of the universe. Anyone who doubts this is invited to read the classic literature that is the mainstay of college humanities courses; or, for those less inclined, tune in to any TV sit-com, radio news program, or highway billboard and reflect on the domain in which the content reflects the implied superiority of our existence as a species. Species-superiority is so ingrained in our culture and collective psyche that we take it for granted: it goes unnoticed and hince unquestioned.

Consciousness continues to have no explanations beyond those commonly given that are just as illusive: it is God, it is the essence of Being, it is the nature of the universe, etc. Indeed, this thing we call "being alive" is still very much a mystery. The brilliant minds that span the development of human culture--from before the early Greek philosophers Thales and Plato to the more contemporary Albert Einstein, Paul Feyerabend, Thomas Kuhn, Henry Stapp, David Chalmers and Daniel Dennett, among many others-- are replete with discussions concerning the nature of being, and the consciousness from which it arises. Yet as brilliant as all these thinkers are, the question "What is consciousness?" remains unambiguously unanswered … well, at least to my mind's eye.

Let's look at this thing we call consciousness from the perspective of some various disciplines that each say something about it: neuroscience, physics, metaphysics, creativity, and lastly, Buddhism's reclusive Chan.

Neuroscience. Recent studies in neuroscience suggest that all our experiences, mental and spiritual, are manifestations of brain mechanics: as we have experiences of this or that, it's simply because the brain is causing us to perceive them. Neuroscientists have created the ability to induce, what people describe as, religious experiences of all kinds, including out of body experiences[2] and even body-swapping experiences. [3] We are left to believe that our experience of life is no more than the result of the brain doing it's "thing". Are we in control of our mind and experiences? Apparently not, they proclaim, for experiments have also demonstrated that our actions arise not because we knowingly will them to: our brain acts to perform an act long before we actually decide, consciously, to do that act - a half second or more before. [4] So much for "free will"?

Who can argue with highly consistent, repeatable, scientific data? The brain is clearly the winner here. It is the reason we can talk about consciousness in the first place. Our ability to perceive clearly begins and ends with the brain.

But can we conclude that the brain is the seat of consciousness from these scientific insights? For example, we may have an out-of-body experience while under the influence of neruo-stimulation but who is it who experiences these things? Who is it who encounters spiritual states of mind through scientific apparatus or unaided through the discipline of meditation? All such experiences would be meaningless without an observer to witness them. Neuroscience has yet to say anything meaningful about this observer.

Physics. Perhaps of all the angles on the nature of consciousness, contemporary physics has the least conclusive and most confounding remarks to make on the subject. It has intrigued physicists and philosophers and inspired numerous books since the beginning of the quantum era in the early 20th century. The nature of reality, physicists say, is such that we can't possibly have any idea what it is beyond our own personal involvement with it. In addition, at a fundamental level, we can know a part of something at a given time, but not the entire thing all at once, for once we know a thing, that is, have taken a measurement, we change the nature of its existence. Everything is always changing - in flux - and the moment we try to nail things down to a certain way of being, we change them simply through the act of observation itself - through our act of conscious participation. This has led to the propositions that we create the world we observe, that we create our own existence, and that since the phenomenological world we live in is itself a chimera, the only thing left to talk about is consciousness itself. Through consciousness everything comes into the semblance of being: there is no individual consciousness because there is no defining individual to possess it, and therefore the universe itself must be conscious - not as a supreme being, but as a fundamental principal, just as gravity is a principal that causes things to fall and magnetism is a principal that causes things to attract or repel.

Yet physics still dances around the issue of consciousness: there has to be an observer, quantum physics maintains, in order to collapse the wave function [5] to create a specific physical event to happen from a horizon of possibilities. But there is nothing that specifies the quality of consciousness that the observer must possess. Can a cat collapse a wave function? A tree? A bacterium? How about a robot? What about an electron or photon? In physics, the part about consciousness is most always left out, relegated to other domains of inquiry with a quick flick of the wrist. [6]

Metaphysics. Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with the fundamental nature of being and our nature within the physical world in which we live. As with all branches of philosophy, the ideas that arise are as diverse as the personalities of the philosophers themselves. Not unexpectedly, after thousands of years there are still no agreed upon conclusions to any of the questions. Metaphysics takes, in practice, the opposite approach to knowledge from physics: it is a non-empirical, qualitative, investigation into the nature of existence: it asks what can be said about the nature of existence simply by thinking about our own personal experience with it. Like the worm in the ground, the views that come from this discipline are determined largely, if not wholly, by the environment in which we find ourselves. We draw conclusions based on our life experiences of the world around us and often those conclusions are colored by our interpretations, feelings, longings for how we would like things to be, the society and culture we live in, etc.. Conclusions are colored by our temperament, our desires, and our pre-existing belief systems. Where there is overlap from person to person, views are shared and agreed upon. Where no overlap exists, there is endless debate.

While the field of metaphysics is a fascinating and often entertaining subject of study, it heretofore has offered no decisive conclusions about the nature of consciousness - arguments between different schools of thought rage on. [7]

Creativity. Creativity may be the most significant reflection of consciousness. Perhaps it is the reason we ask the question "what is consciousness?" in the first place. To create something from our own mind and body that had not previously existed, to ask questions about the nature of things that may be beyond our limited ability to understand fully: are they not all expressions of our desire to be conscious, to be aware of who we are and of the universe in which we live, to grow and evolve in awareness and comprehension?

It is interesting that we can be creative in so many different ways yet so unaware of the mechanism of creativity, or of the nature of the drive that motivates that creativity. It's as if we are guided by some unseen source or, better yet, force. History is replete with stories from geniuses who have claimed their inspiration or guidance from outside of themselves: Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Richard Wagner and Henri Matisse to name a few. They may call it divine inspiration, revelation, epiphany, or hierophany. Some say they "enter the Zone", "go into a transcendental state", "forget themselves," and most all admit to completely losing any notion of time during their creative outbursts. Some go beyond that to admit to not even remembering themselves doing the creative act (this is especially prevalent among composers, artists, mathematicians and physicists).

If our creative mind does not connect with our rational mind, what does this tell us about consciousness? Are there separate domains of consciousness, or is one domain an expression of consciousness, the other not?

How can we figure this out?

Chan. Chinese Buddhism's mystical tradition of Chan/Zen [8] is like science in many ways - in science, if we want to know something we use the methods of science and do an experiment and figure it out; in Chan, if we want to know something, we use the methods of Chan and figure it out: both require the investigator to discover the answer through direct investigation - only the methods are different. But while science gives us answers to questions about the fundamental nature of the natural world, Chan gives us answers to questions about the fundamental nature of ourselves.

The Chan perspective is that anything we can conceive of with the mind, that which is created through the brain's living neuro-matrix, is inherently limited to the mind. Mental constructs such as emotions, thoughts, and feelings are all real, but only in as much as they are mental constructs: beyond that they have no intrinsic reality. Zen purports that the question of consciousness does not need to be answered in a quantitative way, but only reflected upon and observed. In doing so, its nature unfolds directly and naturally - not as in a definition from an encyclopedia, but as direct perception.

Consciousness, whatever it is, is something we each experience subjectively. For this reason, there can never be perfect agreement between two people on what consciousness is - its character is not only unique for each individual, but shifts over time as our brains change and as we gain new experiences, insights and perspectives.[9]

Chan practitioners develop an oblique perspective on the nature of consciousness from those commonly encountered. Through meditation, we enter "states" in which a sense of personal identity vanishes and all that is left is awareness itself: our conscious perspective shifts from a personal ego-oriented one to one not centered on anything, and the qualitative perception of this consciousness is imbued with a universal character. We have a sense that it's something which we are a part of, which is a part of us, yet there is no separation between the two. In still deeper meditations, consciousness seems as a cloud drifting with the wind - formless, without substance, ever changing: there is no longer an observer nor anything to be observed; all that remains is what some call "universal consciousness". Once we gain this perspective, the notion of a personal consciousness is an obvious oxymoron. There is no way to "prove" through dialectic discourse the illusory nature of a personal consciousness, for, from the meditator's perspective, the rational mind that would attempt such a thing is an aspect of what creates the illusion of a separate identity, a separate consciousness, in the first place. Direct perception is the only option for acquiring this kind of understanding.

The methods for gaining this perspective are the methods of Zen. The way we "see" that which is beyond ourselves is by disassociating with our established modes of thinking and identifying. In the Zen world, "detachment" rules--once we detach from who it is we think we are, from our emotions, from our longings for a lover, a car, a special pair of shoes, detach even from our opinions about things -- then we become able to see unambiguously into the nature of being; into the nature of consciousness itself. Without such detachment, we are like fish in the ocean, knowing only of the water around us, nothing of the sky above.

Does this mean that Chan people have consciousness figured out, that we can say conclusively that there is no such thing as personal consciousness? There are many proponents of the idea that consciousness is the fundamental nature of reality, that it is singular and universal, and many of them are not Chan Buddhists: Deepak Chopra, Dean Radin, Menas Kafatos, to name a few, as well as others who have delved into the depths of meditation. However, we must still acknowledge that these experiences we have are still personal experiences; they are experiences of the mind and as such, are still inherently confined to those of us who have them. Conclusions we draw from our experiences cannot, I believe, be justifiably projected beyond ourselves for the very reason that they are subjective in nature. [10]

Chan concerns itself with the process of Self-discovery [11] and offers many methods for investigating consciousness, the hua tou [12] being among my favorites. If we liken consciousness to awareness of Self, of Being, then the methods of Zen offer the means of directly encountering consciousness. While we cannot share these insights through customary modes of discourse because of their ineffable nature [13], many Zen Buddhists maintain that they are attainable by anyone willing to apply the effort to discover them for themselves through meditation and contemplation (according to accounts, this was also the Buddha's proposition some 2500 years ago).

But what can we say conclusively about the nature of consciousness? Likely we all agree that reality exists, and that we participate in reality through consciousness; therefore, consciousness does exist. We all share the experience of that same reality even though our interpretations of it vary: as we look up at the moon we all agree it's the moon even though we differ in how we experience it. Reality is like this: we know it's there even though we differ in its description and our relationship to it.

If we can talk about "lesser" or "greater" degrees of consciousness, then we can conclude that as our consciousness expands, so does our connection with reality. If, on the other hand, there is only consciousness and it does not exist in "variable strength", we can conclude that we are either connected with reality (if we are conscious) or not (if we are not conscious). There is also the intermediate view that we have some degree of consciousness but must experience a "grand awakening", i.e., enlightenment, to become fully aware of it. [14]

snake-biting-tailLeft, The world-snake in the form of an amulet. Drawing on papyrus, 3rd century. Right, tail-eating snake, drawing in 11th centur manuscript, copied from 4th century Egyptian papyrrus.Whether or not consciousness is confined to the domain of the individual or is a universal principal, whether it can be known gradually or only suddenly, consciousness obviously cannot be known except through itself. Just as the ancient alchemical symbol of the snake biting its tail portrays the self discovering the self, the nature of consciousness remains hidden and unknown until we can turn into it and make that essential connection between our mind and the essence from which it arises. Before that vital connection happens, we are in a kind of dream-state [15] which Asian cultures, Buddhism in particular, refer to as Maya.[16]

We may study the sciences and learn fascinating things, contemplate philosophical ideas, hitch ourselves up to neuro-stimulation devices, but from the Zen perspective none of these activities will get us closer to understanding consciousness. For that, there is no substitution for direct inquiry through the methods of contemplation and meditation. We may not be able to directly share our discoveries with others, but it's a thrilling, awe-inspiring, and transformational journey should we choose to take it.


[1] c.f., What is it Like to be a Bat, by Thomas Negal, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, No. 4. (October 1974), pp. 435-450

[2] The Out-of-Body Experience: Disturbed Self-Processing at the Temporo-Parietal Junction , Olaf Blanke and Shahar Arzy, The Neuroscientist, pp. 16-24.

[3] If I Were You: Perceptual Illusion of Body Swapping , Valeria I Petkova and H. Henrik Ehrsson, PLoS ONE, Dec. 2008, Vol. 3, Issue 12.

[4] Time of Conscious Intention to Act in Relation to Onset of Cerebral Activity (Readiness-Potential) the Unconscious Initiation of a Freely Voluntary Act. Benjamin Libet et. al. in Brain, Vol. 106, No. 3, pp 623-642: September 1983.

[5] A wave function is a probability amplitude in quantum mechanics describing how a "particle" behaves. Until an observation is made of the particle, only its wave function can be used to describe it, leaving it in an ambiguous state of existence, if we can say it exists at all. Once a measurement (observation) is made of its velocity or position, we say that we have collapsed the wave function because the particle no longer exists in a state of "probability". Without an observer, nothing can be said about the particle's existence beyond various probabilities. It may in fact not be a particle at all. Since everything is made of "particles", what does this say about the world around us as a causal reflection of our own consciousness?

[6] For a more in-depth look at consciousness as it relates to our physical world, see Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe, by Robert Lanza, MD, with Bob Berman, 2009, BenBella Books, Inc.

[7] At the time of this writing, Wikipedia lists 140 distinct schools of philosophy

[8] Chan is a transliteration of the Sanskrit term Dhyana which means meditation. Zen is the Japanese transliteration of the Chinese term, Chan.

[9] Chan master Hsu Yun expressed this notion quaintly, "One cannot tell how warm or cold is another man's tea. Only the one who is tasting it knows."

[10] This is counter to some Buddhist schools, such as Mahāyāna's Yogācāra school, which attribute a fundamental reality to specific deities which are commonly encountered in meditations by multitudes of people, crossing even ethnic and religious boundaries. Carl Jung attributed this phenomena to what he termed the Collective Unconscious, a quality of our genetic blueprint, shared by all humans, but accessible only during specific mental states such as those encountered during meditation.

[11] This may be misleading because it is not Chan's, or Buddhism's, primary objective, which is to eliminate suffering: our perpetual dissatisfaction with things. It just so happens that the means for eliminating suffering are also those that increase awareness of Self.

[12] The Hua Tou is an ancient Chinese approach to Chan practice which leads one to raise great doubt to sever attachments to mental constructs. For more information on this technique, refer to Stuart Lachs' article The Hua Tou practice: perspectives and examples of an ancient and potent Chinese Chan practice or The Hua Tou Practice, by Chuan Zhi

[13] What we can say is that when we discover a "truth" through the methods of Chan it has a flavor of reality quite beyond that which we normally take to be real in the normal physical world. It is akin to Archimedes' eureka moment, invariably accompanied by a feeling of euphoria and awe.

[14] These are a few of the perspectives that Chan Buddhists have argued over for centuries, for one's experience with Chan gives a unique perspective about the nature of consciousness. It is the reason that there evolved multiple sects of Chan - the most prominent two being distinguished as the Southern and Northern schools, or Rinzai (Línjì) and Soto. The first of these typically maintains that the nature of consciousness can only be realized suddenly (the sudden school) while the latter typically maintains that consciousness grows gradually as one practices (the gradual school).

[15] Mahayana's revered Diamond Sutra contains a quintessential verse at the end: "All conditioned phenomena are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, or shadows; Like drops of dew, or flashes of lightning; Thusly should they be contemplated."

[16] Maya, or illusion, refers to the notion that all of what we perceive is only a projection of what is real, created by our mind/brain, and that we therefore cannot know reality through our senses, which includes the mind itself. Reality can only be known from a mind that is clear from thinking and reasoning and evaluating. Herein lies a paradox in Buddhist thought, for a mind that is clear from thinking and reasoning and evaluating is still a mind perceiving and hence must still exist in a state of Maya since the mind, by definition, is a purely sensory object, at least in the Buddhist sense. Chan's response is to challenge our very thinking about such things in the first place. Thoughts do not lead to reality; they lead to thoughts and more thoughts.