by Michael Maciel
One of the problems that I see with most discussions about consciousness is that they tend to analyze it in terms of content, not consciousness as such.
Hofstadter, if I’m understanding him correctly, seems to want to classify consciousness as an emergent phenomenon formed by a web of self-referential experiences, like a hall of mirrors. I can understand that, because at a certain level, that’s what it is. But underlying this effect is consciousness as such, and THAT is entirely devoid of content.
Most people cannot fathom such a concept. The same people use the word “life” in a similar way—”My life is comprised of my circumstances, my memories, and the way I see the world.” In other words, my content. They cannot see life as anything deeper than chemical reactions, which is ironic because no one, not even the most cutting-edge scientists, have the slightest idea what life is. Life as such and consciousness as such are opaque mysteries to science and might remain so forever.
I have become convinced as a result of my own inner investigations that the greater part of who (and what) we are is unknown and profoundly invisible. As the physicist, J. B. S. Haldane said, “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose,” the emphasis being on the word “can.” Like an iceberg, the bulk of our being lies below the threshold of our awareness.
This is not to say that this invisible part of us plays no part in the way our life unfolds. In fact, its role is central to everything we know and do. The only way to access it is to simply recognize that it is there. Such knowing, which religionists call “faith,” opens a channel for the influence of this “ground of being” to make itself known to us, if only in brief flashes of insights, most of which are ineffable.
This unknown and unknowable part nonetheless continually breathes the breath of life into us, a life that is purely qualitative, not quantitative. And that life seems to have a will of its own, a purpose and direction but, again, not in terms of content but in spirit. Religionists call this the “will of God.”
The most salient fact about this unknown, unknowable part is that the deeper we dive into it, the more universal and less personal it becomes. It’s an existential common ground from which we all derive our sense of self, even though what we sense is beyond our capacity to describe, much less define. But we can feel it. It looms in the background of our awareness as though behind a curtain—a veil—figuratively represented by the curtain separating from view the Holy of Holies in the Temple at Jerusalem.
That’s the thing about curtains—you know something’s going on behind them, and sometimes you can even hear it. But only the “High Priest” part of us can go in there, and then only “once a year,” an allusion to the timelessness of our most exalted states and the causal role those states play in the way our lives unfold in the realm of ordinary consciousness.
I suspect that many of the things we do not understand, such as the underlying structure of language, as Noam Chomsky talks about, and the sense of beauty, humor, and the affinity we feel with the cosmos, not only originate in the unknown, unknowable part of us but carry with them a kind of mandate, a prescribed trajectory that we must follow, one that is specific in outcome but infinite in modes of expression. It’s as though this breath of life, this river of living waters, to use metaphors from the Old and New Testaments, contains everything that is—the “All in each.”
But it’s most fundamental aspect is what can only be described as Personhood. It’s not merely mechanical. It’s not a what but a who. We know this because when we catch a glimpse of it, we have the undeniable sense that something is looking back. When we speak to it, we know we’re being heard. It’s not some kind of cosmic AI, but a living being, one that responds to our being directly and intimately. Religionists call this part of the experience the “love of God.”
Such an experience is WAY beyond our mind’s capacity to understand. The lesser cannot comprehend the greater. This is why sages and gurus tell us to quiet the mind, to still our thoughts, and to empty our awareness of all content. “Neti, neti—not this, not that.” They tell us to go deeper and deeper within, to turn away from our senses, and to turn awareness back upon itself devoid of content, and to let the experience change us, which it unfailingly does, even though we have no idea how.
To do this requires a different kind of language—a language of being, not of doing. Neither will a language of feeling, such as poetry, get us there. It might, however, if it’s entirely honest, cause the intellect to stand down, thus opening up our awareness of being Itself.
So, while intellectual discussions and poetic delvings about the nature of consciousness and its origins are interesting, they cannot substitute for the experience of an authentic inward journey, the ticket for which has an exacting price—everything. All content must be handed over at the gate. Even the slightest attachment holds us back. We have to embrace the aphorism—Let go and let God—absolutely. No half-measures will do. Unless our heart is lighter than a feather, we will be sent back to the circumstances of our lives to once again attempt to achieve escape velocity from the gravity of our mundane existence.