Thursday 19 June 2014

Is consciousness a product of the mind?

In a comment on one of my recent articles, Self-investigation, effort and sleep, Venkat wrote:
May I ask for your comments on the following.

Science tells us that our fundamental building blocks (chemicals . . . electrons, protons, neutrons . . . ultimately energy waves) are inter-dependent and non-differentiated. For whatever reasons, the universe has evolved, and from which has evolved body-minds. These body-minds are fundamentally non-separate. Bhagavan's self-enquiry is for the seemingly separate ‘I’ to see this non-differentiated non-separateness and thereby to dissolve.

If you agree that this model is feasible, is consciousness a product of the mind? Nisargadatta talks about consciousness as a product of the food-body-mind, and the Absolute that is aware of this consciousness.
Since the reply I drafted is too long to post as another comment on that article, I am giving it here:

Venkat, what science tells us is a combination of observations and theories that have been developed to explain those observations in terms of other observations and currently accepted theories, and also to predict future observations, but what science cannot tell us is whether what it has observed is real or illusory. Science is based on our generally unquestioned belief that the world is real and exists independent of our experience of it, but our experience does not and cannot support this belief.

How can we know by experience that anything that we experience exists independent of our experience? We obviously cannot, so our belief that the world does exist independent of our experience is a mere supposition. Therefore science is based on a supposition that it can neither verify nor falsify, and hence we should not rely on science when we consider metaphysical questions (such as whether what seems to be real is actually real or is just illusory) or epistemological questions (such as whether what we believe we know is a true or a false belief).

When you say ‘the universe has evolved’ and that body-minds have evolved from it, you are obviously assuming that the universe and other body-minds exist independent of your mind, which experiences their seeming existence, so the question you are asking is based on an unjustified and unjustifiable assumption. Therefore, before asking any question based on this assumption, should you not first question this assumption itself?

In your experience, the universe and all the bodies and other minds in it appear and disappear: that is, they seem to exist only in waking but not in dream or sleep. In dream some other universe seems to exist along with other bodies and minds, and in sleep no universe, bodies or other minds seem to exist at all. But more importantly, even your own mind, which alone experiences all these things, itself appears and disappears: in waking and dream it seems to exist, but in sleep it does not seem to exist. Therefore even the reality of this mind is open to doubt. Is it real, or is it just a false appearance?

You ask, ‘is consciousness a product of the mind?’ If it were, you would not be conscious when your mind is absent, so you could not experience any state in which your mind is absent. However, as I argue in a recent article, What do we actually experience in sleep?, you do experience sleep even though your mind is absent then, so you were conscious in the absence of your mind. Therefore consciousness cannot be a product of the mind.

I do not know whether what you say Nisargadatta said is actually what he said (though I have read similar reports of what he is supposed to have said), but if this is what he said, it is not clear what he meant, because there is no obvious difference between consciousness and awareness. As they are generally used, these two terms are synonymous. Moreover, if this is what he said, it would raise several questions such as:

Since food, body and mind are all experienced only by something that is conscious, what reason can we have to suppose that they exist independent of that conscious thing? And if they are not independent of it, how could it be a product of them? Moreover, if consciousness were actually ‘a product of the food-body-mind’, how could the Absolute be aware of it? That is, if consciousness were a product of finite things, it would itself be finite, so it could be experienced only by something that is finite and not by the Absolute, because the Absolute is by definition infinite.

As Sri Ramana says verse 4 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu: ‘[...] கண் அலால் காட்சி உண்டோ? [...]’ (kaṇ alāl kāṭci uṇḍō?), which means, ‘[...] Can what is seen be otherwise than the eye? [...]’. Therefore only something that is finite could be aware of something that is finite.

Hence, our finite mind can experience only a finite consciousness (namely itself), whereas the infinite reality (which you call ‘the Absolute’) can experience only an infinite consciousness (namely itself). That is, consciousness can be experienced only by something that is itself conscious, and whatever is conscious cannot experience any consciousness other than itself. For example, though we believe that other people are conscious as we are, we cannot actually experience or be aware of their consciousness, but can only infer from their behaviour that they are conscious (though their behaviour does not actually prove that they are conscious, because in dream we see people behaving in a similar way, so at that time we assume that they are conscious, but after waking from that dream we know they were not conscious).

Therefore the only consciousness that a finite conscious thing (namely our mind) can experience is itself, and the only consciousness that an infinite conscious thing (namely the absolute reality) can experience is itself. Hence the one infinite and absolute reality cannot experience or be aware of any finite consciousness. Because it is infinite, nothing other than it can exist (because if anything other than it did exist, it would be limited and hence not infinite), so it can only be aware of itself, the only consciousness or awareness that actually exists.

Therefore the question we have to ask ourself is whether we are this finite consciousness we call ‘mind’ or the infinite consciousness. Now we seem to be this mind, but we seem to be it only in waking and dream, whereas in sleep we experience ourself without experiencing any mind, so this mind cannot be what we really are. Therefore we need to investigate ourself in order to find out from our own experience what we really are — whether we are some transitory consciousness that is inherently finite, or whether we are actually a consciousness that is infinite and eternal.

If we read many different theories, such as the theories of science and the theories of various spiritual teachers such as Nisargadatta, and if we accept them all unquestioningly and then try to reconcile them with each other, we are liable to become very confused. Therefore, if we wish to follow the clear and simple path of self-investigation (ātma-vicāra) taught by Sri Ramana, we should be ready to question whatever theories or beliefs may be presented to us, and to reject any that seem to be at all dubious, inconsistent, illogical or based on any assumptions that are not adequately supported by our own experience.

Sri Sadhu Om often used to quote Sri Ramana as saying: ‘Do not believe what you do not know’. The only thing we know for certain is ‘I am’ (as I explained in an earlier article, Only ‘I am’ is certain and self-evident), but though we know for certain that I am, we do not know for certain what I am, so we should concentrate all our interest, attention and effort on trying to experience what ‘I’ actually is.

Since everything that we seem to know other than ‘I am’ is uncertain, we should not unconditionally believe any of it. Of course for pragmatic purposes such as bodily survival we have to act as if we believe this world to be real and as if we believe many other things about it, but for spiritual purposes we need not believe anything other than ‘I am’, and should be sceptical about everything else, particularly about whether we actually are the person — the body and mind — that we now seem to be.

When we understand that even our basic assumption that we are this person is dubious, we should also understand that everything that this person believes or seems to know is also dubious. Therefore we should be very wary of all beliefs and theories, whether scientific, philosophical, religious or spiritual, and should place all our trust only in ‘I am’ and in trying to experience what this ‘I’ actually is.


Venkat said...

Dear Michael

Thanks very much for your response. I agree that it is not possible to know whether the external world (and the body-mind) exist independently of the perception of it. Equally, I don't think that it is possible to prove that the world is just an illusion, a perception in consciousness.

So i agree that one has to examine / question what the 'I' is. You imply that the result of this is the certainty that only consciousness is real and all else (including 'my' body mind) is an illusion.

You commented in this blog, that Bhagavan's 'I am' can be equated to the awareness that is aware of the awareness of a perception, and that we should turn our attention to this awareness. But is it possible to be 'aware of the awareness that is aware'? since under Vedanta's neti neti, one cannot be aware of this awareness, one can only BE this awareness, as I think Bhagavan says.

So two questions. Firstly, is the point of this attention on awareness to recognise that the feeling of 'I' is just another perception that arises, equivalent to all other perceptions and is neti neti? And second what does BEING awareness mean?

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

Hello, Mr. James.

I have been one of the thousands who struggled years ago with the different meanings that different teachers give to "Consciousness" and "Awareness".

In order to clarify this point for the person who made this question to you (if my bad english is not a problem), I have to say that Nisargadatta gave the words "Awareness", "Absolute", or "Parabrahman" the same meaning that Ramana gave to the word "Consciousness". Furthermore, when Nisargadatta used "Consciousness" he referred to "consciousness plus an object", something similar to Ramana´s "mind".

So, following Nisargadatta´s definition of "Consciousness", it is not present in deep sleep, while his "Awareness" is.

I hope that helps.

venkat said...


Just to elaborate on my query, the Brihadaranayaka Upanishad states rather beautifully:

"Through what should one know That owing to which all this is known? This Self is That which has been described as neti, neti. It is imperceptible, for It is never perceived; undecaying, for It never decays; unfettered - It never feels pain and never suffers injury. Through what should one know the Knower?"

This would seem to point to a conclusion that anything perceived, including the feeling / thought of I is not it - because it is perceived. Therefore one has to regress to see that all perceptions occurs on a screen of consciousness, and there is no differentiation in those perceptions of I, you, etc.

Is that current?

Many thanks,

venkat said...

Dear Michael,

Sorry, to elaborate again.

Bhagavan said:
"Be quiet and still and all thoughts will disappear. Self-enquiry and self-surrender are only techniques which bring one to the state of inner stillness and quietness. The ultimate instruction is therefore: 'Be still and quiet; stabilise in this state and the Self will be revealed'."

My understanding is that the I-thought, is the fundamental illusion . . . that this body-mind is distinct, separate and 'mine' relative to all else. So to realise ajata vada and non-duality, thought itself needs to see that it is limited and therefore come to an end. Bhagavan's technique for this is to focus on the origin of all other thoughts - the 'I'-thought, whenever it arises, and thereby see that it is no different from all other thoughts and perceptions, and like all those, it appears on a screen of consciousness.

Is this correct?

Many thanks,


R Viswanathan said...

I feel that this dialogue (taken from Robert Adams Satsangs) is pertinent to the above discussion on consciousness. (R: Robert Adams). The answers of Robert Adams, I feel, are not inconsistent with Bhagavan's teachings. However, I will wait for comments of Michael James on this dialogue.

SX: Robert can someone attain liberation by simply being aware? (R: By simply being aware?) I mean like right now there is consciousness awareness. Maybe it's just the ego who feels
this awareness.

R: Of course. You can become that right now if you can wake up! I tell you this so often, wake up and be free! You can awaken any time. Why not do it? Stop playing games and wake up. Be your Self. (SX: Is this pure awareness that one feels, is this just another manifestation of the mind and body or is this...) When you experience pure awareness you have
transcended the mind and body. As long as there is a mind and body you can't feel pure awareness. (SX: But we all can feel this awareness, consciousness...) Your true nature is awareness, you are that. This is your true nature. And you do get a glimpse of it sometimes. (SX: Or should one say, "Who is aware or…?") You should always inquire, "To whom do these feelings come?" As long as you have a feeling, inquire, "To whom does it come?" When
you have arrived there is no longer any feelings and there is noone to ask the question. As
long as you can still ask the question, you've not experienced the ultimate reality. For
when you have experienced the ultimate reality who is left to ask the question?

SX: But a lot of times when inquiring there seems to be...the mind will always be like answering
like this, "This is mind and body," or "this is the ego." And you know what I'm saying?
Does one then just question, "Who is aware of the mind? Who is aware of the ego?"

R: You question, "To whom do these things come? Who feels this? I do. Who am I? What is the source of the I?" Everything that comes into your mind, everything, you question it. Makes no difference what it is. When you reach the state there will be no mind no questioner. They will both be gone. But as long as you feel that there is something there
you've got to question it. "Where did it come from? To whom did it come?" (SX: Even if it's just awareness?) Yes.

SP: How do you reach that stage, no mind, no body?

R: You reach that stage by following the I-thought into the heart centre which is
consciousness. When the I-thought disappears you return to your original state which is
consciousness. No mind, no body.

Sanjay Lohia said...

Revered Sir,

Since about a month or so you have started writing fairly lengthy and useful replies to the comments and questions posted in your blog. Some of the series of comments become almost like an article. But these may get lost after a while or it may be difficult to keep track of all your comments and replies in your various articles.

Therefore I was thinking that perhaps you can also consider putting all these replies in a separate file titled Comments by Michael. Its link can be in your main page of your website – that is, you may insert this heading Comments by Michael after Articles and before Videos in the Home Page of your website. We will just have to click this to access all your replies as and when you write them.

This was just a thought. I am also trying to post it in the comments section of your blog, so that others may also give their opinion on my suggestion. Of course the final decision is yours.

Thanking you and pranams,

Sanjay Lohia

Michael James said...

Sanjay, in response to your suggestion, last week I compiled many of my recent comments into an article, Self-awareness: ‘I’-thought, ‘I’-feeling and ahaṁ-sphuraṇa, but I do not know if I will have time to collect all my comments together in such a manner. I always seem to have much more work that I would like to do than that I have time to do, so perhaps I will have to leave it to someone else to collect and compile all my old comments.

in addition to those comments, there are also many emails that I have written to people that may be useful to compile as articles, but unfortunately I do not have time to do so, and I would prefer to spend my time on translation work, a lot of which needs to be done whenever I can find time enough.

Michael James said...

Venkat, I have answered your three comments above (19 June 2014 23:16, 20 June 2014 18:22 and 21 June 2014 08:53) today in a separate article: Self-awareness is the very nature of ‘I’.