What is Consciousness?

Intelligence and consciousness are not synonymous

ψυχῆς ἐστι λόγος ἑωυτὸν αὔξων.

Soul is speech that increases itself.

Heraclitus, §115

We must stop glorifying "consciousness" as the ultimate human achievement and the purpose of life on this planet. The tortured mess of our moral life and anxiety itself is one of the key signs of consciousness. One could almost say that anxiety is consciousness. An animal does not become aware of itself except when something goes wrong. To imagine that all life seeks its highest expression in the anxious self-absorbed hallucinated voices of a smug ape - I’d like to know when this might begin striking everyone else as grotesquely funny.

Taking the serious observation of our animal neighbors as a starting point, one learns something important: consciousness is hesitation. Consciousness appears either as the conflict between competing instincts or as a byproduct of the search algorithm for the correct instinct - prolonged it becomes anxiety. Consciousness is the residue of intelligent behavior in the cracks between successful instinct. Therefore I repeat this as often as necessary: intelligence and consciousness are not synonymous.

Our prophets, new and old, are always discovering shocking infractions of truth and justice embedded in the foundations of consciousness. There seems to be no end to the disease of our inherited psyche. How could this be, when the techniques of biology are continually astounding us with their ingenuity and robustness? Could it be that human consciousness is too new to have been perfected by eons of adaptation? Is it possible there will one day be a human animal which does not need to lie to itself? Or are we already well-adapted precisely as liars?

Is it the fault of history and a demented acculturation that our fundamental psychology holds to the "infantile" eternal ideals: utopia, permanence, and simple answers to impossible questions? Or is the infant itself responsible? We call the world’s babies to the stand: is the "Fort Da" game a disease, an adaptation to a disease, or the essence of human wisdom in confrontation with transience?

सच्चिदानन्द. Satcitānanda is blissful not because of some finalizing gratification and reward - certainly not because it is "natural" or Buddha "nature" - but because of the profound comorbid forgetfulness of intense concentrated awareness. With enough focus and the power of the breath, we might learn to quiet our narrative voices for a moment. This is actually a reduction of consciousness, not an increase. A body awakened to the world around it is not "conscious", it is awake!

I see the psychotic break as a qualifying experience for meaningful awakening. I mean that until the personality experiences inner annihilation of a Dostoyevskian severity or beyond, one cannot summon the will to part with the herd. Said more like a psychologist: without a crisis it is not yet possible to make conscious choices, because too many "good reasons" and enticements to gratification stand in the way.

Consciousness and conscience have the same origin. This is why the requisite meltdown must be profoundly moral in nature to succeed in destabilizing the hold of centuries of cultural reinforcement of a few key prejudices. Our angst must plead for what we should do, who we should be. Otherwise it is merely depression, metaphysical dilettantism, and the greed of spiritual tourism.

When I speak of the "psychotic core", I wish not to be misunderstood as a shirking mystic resigned to glorified nihilism. I am no "knight of infinite resignation". There are plenty who have such experiences of mindful intensity that they walk away forever scorched and scarred by the abundance of light: there is not a dearth of "reason" in the world, there is an overabundance. Causality, linearity, fractal consequence, the seduction of pattern and recursion and everything the "love of knowledge" breeds, dancing within the kaleidoscope of a moment of awakening - never is the horror vacui at work more than here where consciousness and the "I" emerge as though finally freed from their prison. Yet no one is so likely to misinterpret this experience than the one who lived through it. The most obvious pacification is to consider oneself visited by a higher power. Even the most brilliant mind can succumb to "la nuit de feu", as Pascal did. But it has been a philosophical crime since Parmenides, through Plato, Plutarch, Böhme, Spinoza, Aurobindo and all such others, to speak of the "emanations of God", "Ousia", "Brahman", or whatever other names one cooks up. Even when we allow for the validity of such an experience of sudden awakening, it is not necessarily any proof of the nature of "reality" - only our nature. The linguistically structured brain undergoing massive pseudo-epileptic positive feedback stimulation, and possibly serotonin overdose: this is the "psychotic core" of inner experience, which I call the "core" because it is the result of a strictly logical, consistent application of principles of investigation which we normally do not follow. There is something extremely logical, in fact unreasonably logical, at work in psychosis. The normalized modern mindstate is so much more full of contradiction, hypocrisy, and preconscious error. The fundamentally delusional and mendacious quality of "consciousness" such as we encounter it everywhere is determined by nothing more glaringly than its smug assurance of the full possession of consciousness. Anyone who claims to be fully aware of their actions and motivations, such as 99 out of 100 modern slobs will claim, has not taken the first step toward understanding their true situation: "a babe in the arms of circumstance". So when someone as deep as Heraclitus expresses himself in riddles, isn’t it precisely because the riddle opens doors, rather than closes them? Doors which lead somewhere underworldly, to that world where thinking begins, where it is born, where it has its roots.

The ego rides like a cork atop changing seas, stretched thin over divergence and quietly forgotten where it does not cohere. I hesitate to say again that "the ego is a liar" - this is a message we perhaps do not need to hear anymore. But understanding the necessity of its falsifications helps unravel the secret adjudications and subtle warpings that precede the narratives we hear, as though a voice spoke to us. The ego speaks secretly to itself on behalf of its masters, but pretends only to listen. This is perhaps its most brash lie. Poorly concealed because it is so well enfolded into the functioning of its essential roles: bringer of light, healer of intractable wounds, banisher of the unthinkable. This is the valuable lesson I’ve found in the Theravada schools and the more sane teachings of the Buddha: to add an unnecessary lie to a necessary one is foolish. If we can stop lying to ourselves about the perpetual falsification of the ego, we can at least allow it to do its job with innocence.

What I call the "white magic of intent" is the relationship between conscious semantic entrancement and unconscious symbolic constellation. The "talking cure" is the art of shifting unconscious fixation through the leverage of speech, a leverage which extends into the depth of our unconscious mind. Speech is to the mind what breath and the vagus nerve is to the body.

No word is tossed around today more frequently and with less clarity of definition than "consciousness". But what is it? Arranged in order of respectability:

  1. Linguistically determined narratization: "internal dialogue".
  2. Awareness turned on itself: perception of perception.
  3. The conglomeration of sensations into the illusion of a whole: something like the five skandhas of Buddhism.
  4. A "field of awareness" imagined to surround the human being: the "aura", the projection of the soul.
  5. Roughly sentience, meaning responsiveness to the environment with coherent aims. When biologists use the term.
  6. A noncorporeal essence of the human being (and only the human being): the modern word for the soul.
  7. Awareness of political issues and current events: in practice, using the correct vocabulary in the right context, the basest sense of Zeitgeist.

So what do I mean when I use the word "consciousness"? The first two only: internal narratization, and apperception. I believe the illusion of a "whole psyche" is always flimsy at best, and rooted largely in the ceaseless anxious dialogue we indulge in. What is much more powerful and difficult to dislodge, is the identification with "the I". This is not some abstract hypostatized "ego" floating somewhere in the brain: it is the "I" which we use in speech. It should have been rendered with a consistent translation: das Ich, le Je, el Yo, 此我. "Le Moi" for example, implies "the Self" as viewed from another deictic locale and is therefore incorrect.

When I say I, as I just did three times, what happens? I hear the sentence spoken internally, I mime it secretly, or perhaps I even speak it aloud. Isn’t it telling that when overcome by some unconscious urge to rehearse a scene from the past or future, or to argue with a recurring voice, we overcome our modern shyness and speak to ourselves aloud? But we don’t speak to ourselves: we speak to an other. Lacan should never had allowed his "Autre" to grow into a mystical entity. He should have constantly reminded himself that it only has sense in the most immediate present: the other is the one to whom we speak. Yet because this omnipresent "other" is what makes speech possible, it is also what writes the riddle of language: in Lacan’s terms, every signified is also a signifier. The meaning is always "elsewhere". The network of meanings is an endless series of dependent variables, with no original "meaning" to be found anywhere. This is what we intend when we speak of the "labyrinth of language".

Lacan likes to take this further, and likes to blithely hint at ever further reaches of abysmal alienation: because this "other" is not merely the target of speech but the elusive character of signification itself, it is also therefore the means of all possible speech, and because there is neither any other means, nor audience, nor any original meaning, therefore this quality of other and its absence, is even what passes for an agency. This absence, this elsewhere, this eternal chase, is desire, and as such what constitutes and vibrates the crystalline structure, like a mystified infant hypothesizing what moves the mobile above his crib. The once seemingly silent passive "other as effigy" has become the "big Other" that dominates and alienates. The "desire of the Other" has first and last say. The "I" has shrunk to merely the "barred subject", the leftover debris of the analysis of the sentence, the extra part found when putting the machine back together.

I won’t go further into Lacan’s theory because it’s abysmal, in many senses. We must remind ourselves what our question is: what is consciousness? How is internal dialogue consciousness itself? Lacan’s primary value, in my view, is his appreciation of the uncanny at the heart of language: consciousness itself is overdetermined by the uncanny. Twoness, twinning, twilight, Zwielicht, Zwiespalt: to understand me one must have taken one’s dreams seriously at a young age or simply always have been intuitive - a dalliance in Freudian thinking does not suffice. The dream is the great teacher of ambivalence, overdetermination, and the uncanny. My assertion is that consciousness, against all our assurances to the contrary, is in fact drenched in these characteristics. It is the nakedness of the sentence that echoes so loud, the homogeneity of social behavior, and above all our indomitable will to ignorance - otherwise known as repression - that convinces us that consciousness is something else. We are convinced that conscious thinking is rational, orderly, tame, free of contradiction, and above all: willed by an agent. The conscious agent who thinks, willingly, freely: we are still not free of this illusion in the slightest.

We don’t want to know how much we talk to ourselves. We don’t want to admit how much we hear voices, argue with voices, are merely voices. Neurologists and psychologists get very nervous in this territory, and it takes the frankness and humility of an Oliver Sacks to document just how frequent, commonplace, and almost trite the ubiquity of hallucination among us really is. We are the hallucinating apes: every time we speak, we induce hallucinations in each other - that is the function of speaking, what linguists call the "displacement" of information. Analogously, every time we think, we induce hallucinations in ourselves: that is the true power of thought, so abused and overused it is now, that we’ve even come to believe that this hallucinated voice constitutes the core of our being. Cogito ergo sum - but what insane creature first of all questions whether or not he is, and secondly what insane creature settles the question with the authority of a hallucinated voice?

The second sense of "consciousness" I accept is apperception: meaning the internal observation of the act of sense perception. Buddhist psychology concerning apperception is the only decent kind I know of, because one simply must have meditated seriously for a few years in order to be qualified: we’re talking about the perception of perception of perception, which is obviously ridiculous but adding an additional layer of observation is actually required, as in all science. To watch oneself watching oneself perceive: an absurd, fragile house of cards which falls over with the slightest touch, and telling the difference between discovery and utter delusion regarding any of this is extremely difficult if not impossible. There is a mountain of Tibetan and Theravadan theory concerning these pitfalls. The mirroring happens so quickly that even knowing whether there is any difference between the "upper harmonics" is nearly impossible - and could actually be impossible. What really happens in good meditation, is a kind of stillness that imbues all "sense worlds": commentary slows, and can even cease. This lack of narratization leads to a novel feeling of nearness to phenomena, even that one "is" one’s senses. One does not "watch" sense data anymore, it happens. This is what "suchness" means to me.

But this kind of "meta-awareness" is not terribly important. What’s important, is that the body calms, the breath slows, the glands produce good chemistry, the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system are happy. All games taking place in the "attic" - are trivial. This is the answer none of our Buddhist colleagues want to hear, because they want that theory of moksha as much as any "philosopher" too scared to try meditation needs their own kind of moksha like a fig leaf.

If we define apperception as "perception of the act of perception", a valid question is: how is this possible? What could we mean by "internal observation"? This is only a visual metaphor applied where there are no eyes and no light: something neurologists forget constantly, if they ever knew. But we all believe we know roughly what I mean if I say "observation of one’s own internal states". This is not the same as hearing the hallucinated internal voice of the conscious I, it is more like the flash of an image of one’s body, the partial summary of the tactile sensations of the skin, the scant sensations of the internal organs, the vague impression of mood and the balance of pain and pleasure, the sensation of breath and heartbeat: apperception is at best all these sensations bundled into a whole without blurring the distinctions. But the containment, the sense that something holds all this, of an "internal observer": this is a hallucination. There is no inner "self" that observes: this is an old familiar line from the ascetics, but I differ at a key point. The sense of "self" and the hallucinated narratizing voice do not have the same level of validity and measure of health. Just because the self is hallucinated - or "emergent" - does not mean it’s false. When I spend time with animals, this all becomes clearer: what I see them doing, moving about their environment with flawless and nearly instantaneous calculation and response, is constant effortless vigilance. Merely an hour seriously studying a flock of sparrows teaches this. It’s called proprioception: the body ceaselessly maps space, anticipates movement, judges distance - all of which is a kind of tightly controlled hallucination which allows us to predict the future a few milliseconds out and judge distances to within millimeters. What we call apperception is merely this uncanny ability to map and anticipate and rectify gaps, turned inward.

There is a great confusion of consciousness with the ability to be "present". To the good Buddhist psychologist, what is generally meant by "consciousness" in Western contexts should actually be called "discursive mind". Discursive mind is one of the primary obstacles in meditative practice. On the other hand, jhāna, awareness, has nothing whatever to do with this loud thinking, this cogito. Awareness is witnessing, watching, presence, not knowing what you’ll say or do or feel, without anxiety, accompanied by the joy of being alive, the humor of being human, the wonder of the eternally new moment: that is much closer to being unconscious insofar as the mind is finally quiet, and the narrative I has finally relaxed.

This is all fascinating in the highest degree. Yet why haven’t I written a book about consciousness instead? Because my verdict on all this theory is quite different from everyone else: it’s not important. It’s just another masturbatory aid for weak bodies with overactive minds. At best, for the dedicated student of meditation, it is a tantalizing goal which can encourage the health regimen which ascetic discipline can under the right circumstances provide.

However, the delusion that freedom lies in "understanding" of this kind: false from top to bottom. False! The health of the body is what liberates. The big health, the laughing health, the ribald spontaneous health, the health that is bigger than such anxieties, that wakes up one day and does not care anymore. The way out of the "labyrinth of meaning" is not in the labyrinth. Only the strength of the unconscious mind powered by the unconscious body, the body that is untouched by theory, by "understanding" of this kind, will simply walk away from the maze as though walking away from an engrossing puzzle, as though waking from a reverie, as though suddenly forgetting. And it is forgetfulness which heals.

This is an excerpt from Bartholomy’s book, The Moral Disease.