What consciousness wants

Brain tree illustration, tree of knowledge

What does consciousness want? I don’t mean what do “you” want. I mean, what is consciousness fundamentally about? What is it trying to do? What is its nature?

Consciousness is undefinable. We can look at the brain with fancy machines and see activity going on. We can study neurons and understand the physical processes by which, for example, vision takes place. But how actual experience comes to arise on the basis of this is something that isn’t understood. This has been called the “hard problem” of explaining consciousness because scientists and philosophers don’t even know how to begin to think about this.

The philosopher and neuroscientist Alva Noë has said that consciousness is co-extensive with life itself. This doesn’t define consciousness, since we can’t even define life. But Noë’s argument is that all life has some kind of awareness of and ability to respond to its environment.

I believe that the consciousness that animates an amoeba or a yeast cell is fundamentally the same as that of a human being. There is only one kind of consciousness.

Yes, there is a difference as well. Although there is only one kind of consciousness, it performs in different ways depending on the nature of the being in which it is manifesting. An amoeba lives in a relatively simple world that includes food and toxins. It moves toward and engulfs food, and avoids toxins. It almost certainly doesn’t have thoughts or emotions. A wolf has a more complex nervous system, sense organs, and body. It has things like feelings, a sense of social hierarchy, needs for affection and companionship, etc. It is capable of more developed memories than an amoeba. It can plan and anticipate the future. A human being is more complex still. Our nervous systems are capable of seeing meaning in life, for example, and we’re able to construct stories, culture and technology (memories passed from generation to generation).

But the same fundamental consciousness is expressing itself through these various channels. Consciousness is like water or electricity. The water that flows through a stream is the same “stuff” as the water that flows through the trunk of a redwood tree, and the electricity in lightning is the same “stuff” that flows through our nerve cells when we remember our first date. Similarly, consciousness is all the same “stuff” whether it’s manifesting in a paramecium or a person.

Consciousness will naturally try to express itself as fully as it can, within the confines of the physical structure in which it’s manifesting. But the way in which consciousness expresses itself is always going to be limited because of those structures.

Consciousness, I believe, fundamentally wants to flow with the least resistance possible. When I say that it “wants” this I don’t mean that this is a real desire, any more than water has desire when it flows downhill. Water, if given the “choice,” will flow along a wide straight channel rather than along a narrow, twisted one. Electricity does the same, “choosing” to flow along a wire with low resistance, rather than one with high resistance. “Choice” here is just an analogy. All we’re saying is that this is how water and electricity behave.

I believe that consciousness “wants” to “flow” freely. Unfortunately, in the human brain/mind it rarely gets a chance to do this. The structure of the human brain leads to internal conflict, because various “modules” have different strategies. For example, in order to promote survival (and thus continued wellbeing) the amygdala prompts us to behave aggressively when it detects a threat. On the other hand, the neocortex recognizes that aggression frequently creates conflict and thus threatens our wellbeing. These are mutually incompatible aims. Consciousness is thus like water where the flow is turned back upon itself, causing turbulence. We experience this disturbance as dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, or suffering. Craving, aversion, and delusion are all sources of this turbulence.

The ultimate state of peace to which consciousness “aspires” is the calm state that Buddhism calls “equanimity,” where the mind has been harmonized, and consciousness doesn’t react to stimuli in ways that cause unnecessary disturbance. This state is also called “compassion” because relating compassionately to other manifestations of consciousness is the most peaceful way that it can function socially. This state is also called “wisdom,” because consciousness at rest recognizes that craving and aversion are simply flawed strategies for finding peace, and because consciousness expressing itself in one physical form recognizes how consciousness as it manifests in other physical forms is simply trying to find peace.

In a neurologically complex being, such as a human being, consciousness has the ability to observe and assess its own functioning. It also has the ability to change the physical structure through which it operates. When consciousness observes that, for example, compassion is a valid way to move towards a state of peace, and that aggression isn’t, the brain changes in ways which make compassion more likely to be expressed in the future. New habits create new neural pathways. Abandoning habits leads to neural atrophy in unused circuits.

Consciousness does not take place within a self, but the self—or the idea of the self—takes place within consciousness. One of the things that happens in a complex consciousness is that stories are created in an attempt to explain the past and predict the future. One of those stories is that there is a “self” which contains consciousness, owns consciousness, and of which consciousness is a part. In reality, of course, the “self” happens within consciousness, as a simulation.

When a consciousness recognizes that one of the limits that has been hindering its expression is this imagined self, it can then begin to test the illusion. It can look and see that there are no stable experiences. All experiences are impermanent. Thus, there is no way for a stable self to exist. Eventually the imagined self is seen as what it is, a story representing something that doesn’t exist. At that point there is a major shift in how consciousness operates, and in its ability to move toward a state of rest and peace. We call that shift “Awakening.”

Other aspects of the functioning of the being are also questioned—not just whether craving and aversion can ever work at bringing about peace (it’s been largely seen that they don’t), but whether in fact there is any “thing” to be grasped or avoided. Progressively, craving and aversion cease to function, because they’re no longer taken seriously. The very idea of separateness (I versus the world, me versus you, experiencer versus experienced) fades away.

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Gradually, consciousness is able to express itself more and more freely, without painful turbulence, and just as gradually, consciousness moves toward a state of graceful expression characterized by wisdom and equanimity, and expressing itself as compassion.

We can summarize all this by saying that when the physical universe becomes complex enough, life (and consciousness) arise. Give a star enough time, and it starts to wonder why it isn’t happy. Part of the universe ponders the rest of the universe, and wonders what it’s all about. Why am I here? What happens then I die? How can I become happier? How can I have more of the experiences I like and fewer of those I don’t like? It thinks of itself as separate.

Give this apparently separate part of the universe a bit more time and it’ll learn to untangle, unwind, and relax the habits that have created its sense of separateness. It then becomes simply another part of the universe, flowing, clearly aware, without delusions of separateness, and with the compassionate desire to help other deluded expressions of consciousness to reach the same state of rest, peace, and wisdom.

Just Sitting is an important part of this process. It allows consciousness the time and space to become aware of its own functioning, to create the conditions for removing the “turbulence” of craving, aversion, and delusion, and so to come to a state of pure, unobstructed flow.

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