We have always wondered what makes humans different from other creatures around us.
The fact that we ‘wonder’ is the key to understanding the difference.
It’s a simple enough concept.
Picture a flower bed. Is the flower in the left row aware of the one on the right? Does it realise it is a ‘rose’ and one among many in the garden? It doesn’t. Likewise, most creatures on earth can’t perceive their ‘otherness’ or individuality. Unlike flowers, or bacteria or caterpillars, humans are acutely aware they are alive. I live, I think, I act, I react. So do others around me and I form relationships with these others in myriad permutations. This complexity of awareness is, arguably, unique to us. Only we say ‘I exist’; only we know there is an ‘I’.
Does this mean a flower has zero consciousness? How then does it know when to bloom? Or when it’s time to dry out and make way for a new one? Something embedded in the flower triggers the unique ‘rose behaviours’. This is true of birds migrating or a piece of iron rusting. Or any other object being itself.
Everything has a sense, a consciousness about how to respond to external stimuli. While non-living things and plants have embedded consciousness, animals have a more complex awareness––one tinged with a sense of perception. Elephants can recognize their grandparents and dogs are loyal to their owners. Most other higher-order animals perceive familial relationships and exist in groups.
At the top of the consciousness pyramid is the consciousness of free-will––what we humans are blessed with and makes us ‘wonder’ about our individuality.
While this is a good way of looking at consciousness, it’s not exactly on point. To get a better understanding, let’s do a thought experiment.
Flip this perspective––that all things ‘contain’ consciousness. Instead, imagine that everything ‘is contained’ in a field of consciousness. This can be a complex thought to wrap one’s head around. But really it’s not. Think of sun rays. They are stored in plants as starch, in animals as muscle, in petrol as energy etc. And yet we are able to grasp that solar power is different from starch, muscle or fossil fuel. These are merely its manifestations in different forms in different vessels. Solar power itself is much larger and exists outside of these vessels.
Similarly, consciousness is a unified field much larger than its different manifestations in different things.
One framework to talk about this phenomenon of unified consciousness and its manifestations is to say that there is The consciousness––the universal consciousness which manifests in all things; a consciousness––that which belongs to any individual creature or thing; and my consciousness–– the self-aware consciousness unique to humans.
Let’s talk about the self-aware consciousness of human beings. Henceforth in the post the word consciousness refers to the free-will human consciousness.
At its most basic, human consciousness is awareness––an awareness that separateness exists between ‘me’ and others, and ‘my’ experience of life is different from the world. Some part of ‘my’ experience I share with you––the sky is blue, fire is hot––and some is uniquely mine––chocolates make me happy, jazz makes me cry.
As with all things observable, scientists have probed consciousness in order to decode it. But it has eluded comprehension and remains an enigma for them. They still have no clue whether consciousness is even biological. If it is, what causes it and how? Where exactly in the brain does it reside?
One neurobiological hypothesis suggests consciousness is the by-product of oscillating electrical signals in the brain. Another posits that processing massive amounts of information leads to consciousness. Yet another suggests that higher-order brain areas process information fragments from lower-order sensory brain centres and send back the interpretation. This continuous back and forth produces a contextualised interpretation of the environment.
Like scientists, philosophers too have battled with consciousness through the ages. Plato, Descartes, Kant––all propounded theories and wrote treatise on the phenomenon. They either took a material approach––consciousness resides in the body, or a dualist approach––consciousness is separate from the physical body.
But even after several millennia of enquiry across academic disciplines, consciousness remains a mystery.
While scientists and philosophers take up the task of understanding the mechanics of consciousness, we must look at another group of its students––the practitioners––to guide us on how to benefit from its power.
The practitioners took a radically different approach. They toyed with consciousness, tested its limits and dedicated themselves to understanding how it manifests itself and how we can harness its power. Over centuries of experimentation and direct engagement, they perfected the techniques of accessing it in its highest forms to deepen and expand immeasurably their experience of life.
For us who are not scientists or career philosophers, following the practitioner’s approach makes the most sense. Why? Because that is how we live life. We use systems, tools and processes letting experts worry about the nuts and bolts and the ifs and whys and hows. Think of the smartphone you own. Did you try to understand its electric circuitry before you bought it? Or how the chips in it are made? Ditto internet, cars, medicines, etc. Once we perceive something is useful, we leverage it to enhance our life.
And so with consciousness. Humans have benefited from its power even as they have grappled with understanding its origins and decoding its mechanics.
But before you and I can leverage the power of consciousness to become infinitely more engaged and responsive to our environment, there are a few things we must understand.
Different schools ascribe different levels to human consciousness. Advaita Vedanta describes 4 levels, Ananda Sangha describes 3, others go with 7. Whatever the number of levels and the criteria for the classification, the underlying principle remains the same––human consciousness is vast and its ever increasing complexity is revealed as we move up the levels.
Most humans inhabit the lower levels all their lives. It is analogous to driving our cars in first gear, without accelerating to higher gears. In fact, many of us remain oblivious that more than one gear exists!
Each one of us is capable of expanding our consciousness any time we want. Moving up the levels of consciousness fills us with a sense of immense power. We are better able to control our lives and manifest our desires.
Human beings yearn for a deeper connect with The consciousness instinctively. But navigating levels of consciousness and accessing higher ones does not come easy. Few of us have been able to chart the course to the pinnacle of consciousness solo. While we desire deeply we do not know how to get there. As a result, we miss out on the marvelous opportunities sparked by the expansion of our consciousness.
The blessing though is that consciousness, in all its magnificence, is ever present in every human being. All we need to do is engage with it in all its multilayered complexity and unlock its life-altering power.