Consciousness at the Core
We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.
– Max Planck, founder of quantum physics
In A Simple Term Illuminates Our Core State, I describe the state of our core of being, with its two hallmark features: attentiveness and equanimity. And I gave that core state an official name: Just Being.
Now let’s look at the nature of the core itself. If Just Being is the state of our core, what is that core? If the extensions of being – sensing, perceiving, feeling, thinking and acting – are reduced to a bare minimum in the resting state of Just Being, what are we left with? What is actually there to simply be?
My answer is the same one Max Planck indicates above and many wisdom traditions have offered for millennia: consciousness, the single inescapable reality of our human existence. As philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris says, “Consciousness is the one thing in the universe that can’t be an illusion.”
I love Planck’s statement that “We cannot get behind consciousness.” When we step back to observe whatever we are sensing, perceiving, feeling, thinking and/or acting on – or to observe those faculties themselves, independent of their objects – we do so with our consciousness. But as consciousness itself is fundamental, it is the one thing we cannot get behindThere is one critically important nuance to this fact, which will be explicated later: We can become conscious of our consciousness. Still, when we perform this simple yet radical feat, we do it with…. our consciousness. or inside of.
Perhaps the most paradoxical and ironic aspect of consciousness is the fact that, despite its fundamental position and pervasiveness in our life, we are generally not conscious of being conscious. The comparison is often made to the commonly stated condition of fish in water: We are ‘swimming’ in consciousness but unaware of its ubiquitous presence because consciousness is all we know. Becoming aware of our consciousness is key to launching the Quest.
In On Just Being we will explore consciousness in depth, both to understand it and more importantly, to experience it and become facile with it. Acquiring the ability to recognize and manage our consciousness is essential to pursuing self-knowledge and connecting to our core… because our core is consciousness.
Keeping It Personal
Perhaps this all seems a bit convoluted and self-referencing. Indeed, it is. Consciousness is a vast, complex and perplexing phenomenon, simultaneously as familiar as the air we breathe yet so mysterious it is commonly called “the hard problem” of science.
While I am fascinated by scientific, philosophical and metaphysical investigations of consciousness – and will likely address such considerations and viewpoints at times – they are not the primary vantage points from which we will explore and discuss consciousness in On Just Being. Much more important here is how we understand, use and develop our consciousness on an individual and interpersonal basis.
The two levels or spheres of consciousness inquiry – universal and personal, if you will – are, naturally, integrally related. An in-depth understanding of one can certainly aid in comprehending the other. But in my experience, engaging the formidable challenge of understanding consciousness ontologically is not essential to experiencing and developing our personal consciousness. It can even be a hindrance.
A related point: Whatever beliefs we might hold about consciousness, whether from a scientific, spiritual, philosophical or any other perspective, they should not interfere, nor even come into play, with directly experiencing our own consciousness. It is just there, fundamental to and existing “behind” everything we experience, irrespective of any and all ideas we may hold about it. This is the naked sense and sensing of consciousness that is important here.
Consciousness, Awareness & Attention
I will close this introduction to the topic of consciousness by relating how my understanding of three integrally related aspects of the same phenomenon – consciousness, awareness and attention – has evolved into a deeper understanding of consciousness.
For many years I equated consciousness with awareness. And I still see them as equivalent when used in their verb forms. I am conscious of something means the same as I am aware of something: I am cognizant of its presence, a receptive observation of something’s existence.
Attention is awareness focused. Paying attention to something means concentrating my awareness on that thing out of a plethora of other possible things to attend to, whether that ‘thing’ is a thought, feeling, sensation, person, physical object or any other phenomenon, internal or external.
That was my first understanding of what these three words mean. Over time I became increasingly fascinated with the relationship of awareness and choice. Between being aware and choosing what to be aware of. It became clear that the two faculties have an intimate and indivisible relationship to each other.
The juncture of awareness and choice is clear in the operation of our attention: We choose what to focus our awareness on. Or do we? Well, this is a big and important subject, touching on the endless debate about free will. As with the subject of consciousness, we could get lost in endless analysis and discourse on the subject of free will as an existential question. I am more interested here in how we exercise choice as individuals.
I have a settled opinion on the question of if we have the power to choose: we do. But we are not always aware of having that power, which for all practical purposes means that when this is our condition we do not have the power to choose. This is a bit of a teaser, because this is yet another crucial subject to be further explored.
Consciousness = Awareness + Will
As I further contemplated and personally experimented with choice and awareness, I came to see a useful and important distinction between consciousness and awareness. Whereas awareness signifies recognition and observation, consciousness is composed of awareness plus will, i.e., both the receptive state of being attentive and the power to choose what to attend to. Both faculties are intrinsic to consciousness.
This dual nature of consciousness leads me to assign an official name to the core of our being. Near the end of A Simple Term Illuminates Our Core State, I wrote:
The state of Just Being is always brimming with potential choices. It is also imbued with the power to choose among them. And this is because Just Being is the state of our innermost core, and that core is the generator of our entire life and all our experience.
This generative power of the consciousness at our core is the reason I am designating this center of being as our Creative Core.