Last week I stumbled upon the work of neuroscientist-philosopher-author Sam Harris, and over the weekend I read one of his books, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Outside of maybe high school religion class, I don't think I've ever read a book with the words "religion" and "spirituality" in the title. What interests me, though, is learning about how the mind works and the nature of our existence. That's what a lot of this book is about.
I'm fascinated by the ideas presented here, all of which are logically sound but take an open mind to entertain.
What is consciousness?
I guess I've never really thought about the nature of consciousness. Science still can't tell us how or why it arises. While there is reason to suspect consciousness is an emergent property of complex information processing, this doesn't explain the specifics of of how, nor the reasons why, it appears.
The only evidence we have that consciousness exists is that we each experience it. And through observation we can see that other beings display behaviors that are consistent with our own experience of consciousness. But there's no measurement or readout that you can point to and say, "THERE IT IS!"
Our consciousness is simply our subjective experience of the world around us.
But exactly who is having the experience?
The left and right hemispheres of the brain are two discrete areas of consciousness, and it's possible that other distinct centers of consciousness exist in the brain. This has been shown in experiments with people who've had the link between the two hemispheres of their brain severed.
Yet we all have this feeling of a self — like there is a discrete entity that lives behind our eyes that is having the experiences and doing the thinking.
Who am I? It seems like I'm the voice in my head. "What do I want?" "I'm hungry." "I have to remember to do this later." But if you pay close attention, you see that it's nearly impossible to stop this random chatter and that you're not really controlling it. In the book, the reader is asked to try this: Sit still and try to not think. Then notice the thoughts that start flowing in. Did you know what they were going to be? Did you choose them? No, you didn't.
We talk to ourselves constantly — but who are we talking to? The feeling that there is someone/something in our head that we can talk to is an illusion created by the mind. Like an optical illusion, what you see is real only because you view as real. If examined more closely, however, the illusion disappears.
This is really hard to grasp, and it's not to say that the illusion of a self isn't necessary. Could we form relationships and survive as a species without it? But I find it fascinating and valuable to know that it's a fabrication and that it's not the the only possible state of human experience.
Here's where it gets "spiritual"
Any experience — negative or positive — is a function of our thoughts. If we are not thinking a negative thought, then we are not perceiving a negative experience. The amazing thing is that our underlying consciousness is never affected by our thoughts; it's not defined by them, it's merely aware of them. Just like a mirror reflecting an image, the mirror stays the same no matter what it's reflecting.
By practicing mindfulness — through meditation and introspection — we can see the true nature of our thoughts: they are sensory inputs that arise in consciousness. Thoughts come and go and we do not have to be overrun by them.
If we can practice existing in a state of consciousness that's free of distraction and illusion — even if only for a minute at a time — then we can and have a feeling of profound connection and calmness that improves the quality of our lives.