What is Consciousness?



After more than a quarter of a million years as homo sapiens, a hundred thousand as anatomically modern humans, forty thousand years since we created and experienced the ritualized consciousness-raising performance of art in caves, the passing of millennia during which the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, and Greeks mythologized and philosophized, the Vedic masters, Buddha, Confucius, and Christ meditated and taught, the hundreds of years that scientists have probed, experimented, and hypothesized, billions of us have experienced it directly, and we still…to this very day…have no clear idea about the nature of this experience we refer to as “consciousness”.
Of course, it is also quite correct to state that we are not even clear about the actual nature of light, for example. Light is demonstrably both a particle and a wave phenomenon. But this is impossible. These are mutually exclusive realities. And since light is a form of electromagnetic radiation, which comprises everything in the universe including matter, it is very true that we do not have a coherent grasp of the actual nature of anything at all.
And yet, there is only one experience, or thing, or event, or process – whatever you choose to call it – that constitutes the sum totality of our awareness. And this is called “consciousness”. Is it, like everything else that can be shown to exist in the universe, a form of matter/energy? Or is it something else – perhaps something that can be best described by a word such as “spirit”? We just don’t know. Because we don’t really know what this so-called “spirit” might consist of. Or let’s say there is nothing even barely resembling agreement on this among humans who contemplate it.
The odd thing about all this is that we are talking about the simple experience of what it is to actually be what we are – alive, sensate, aware, existing in the present moment. And no one really knows what this means; or what it is; or what it is made of.
It might be less jarring to our sense of self-knowledge if we didn’t seem to take it for granted as much as we do. I mean it is such an unusual thing to talk about that we don’t even have many shared words, phrases, concepts, or even memes that allow us to comfortably consider what this strange force of nature – which we seem to be in the midst of – actually is.
Even the most advanced and thoughtful biologists, brain researchers, psychologists, contemporary scientists and philosophers admit they have only the most rudimentary knowledge of some of the most very basic electro-chemical processes that seem to be associated with the neurological aspects of consciousness.
Is our consciousness a field of radiation or energy, like light? If that is the case then our heads seem to be at the exact center of a kind of mental light bulb. But that doesn’t make a lot of sense because it doesn’t actually feel like something is radiating out of our eyeballs. Instead, it seems as if the world outside – whatever that means – is somehow coming in through our senses. So it’s more like our consciousness is a kind of receiver of…oh…reality waves or something – what is called “the real world”. We seem to be a part of this. In fact, we seem to be at the center of it, don’t we? And that’s all we can be sure of…that we are a focus of experience, awareness, consciousness, which lies at the exact center of what is called “reality”. And no one actually knows what any of this is made of, how or where it exists, and what it may mean…
What’s the point of all this…speculation? What value is there for each of us to expend some energy contemplating such an abstruse philosophical subject? Isn’t it yet clear that we’re talking about – not just what we are but – who we are? What is our actual purpose as human beings? Not some imagined external purpose that would derive from some belief system; but what should we be doing based on the situation we find ourselves in here on Earth, in the universe…in the real world? What are the facts of the matter? Are there facts? What is matter? Is this so-called “reality” something we are free to create as we choose? Can we just make it up as we go along? And if so, then what is the best way we can create it? And what would it be like if we could just create any kind of real world that we want?
Hold that thought…in your mind, I mean.
Hold it in your mind. You know…your mind (whatever that is) – this miraculous sensation of awareness that seems to encompass your entire identity and existence and the whole of reality – all at once. Hold it there…
We’ll continue and see where this leads in the next entry…


Image: “What is Consciousness?” by Tullio DeSantis, digitally altered ink on paper drawing, 2010.

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