“The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
“The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.” – Chapter One, Tao Te Ching
The traditional reading goes something like
”He who speaks does not know,
He who knows does not speak.”
And it’s not that speaking of the Tao is forbidden, per se; it’s simply futile, and he who knows, knows the futility of trying to express it.
So, why am I “breaking the taboo”? What do I hope to gain, what do I hope to explain?
When I engaged with the Oprah webinar for Eckhart Tolle’s A NEW EARTH, after decades of what I felt were failed attempts at meditation, I had a breakthrough when I realized (I don’t know that Mr. Tolle would agree) that what he spoke of as “presence”, a state of being, as opposed to doing, or even thinking, was the same end-point as my attempts at meditation – turning off the thinking mind, the doing mind, in favor of the being mind.
Now, why, oh why, is there a barrier to speaking about the Tao? It has to do with objects of consciousness, which we manufacture in order to speak and think “objectively” about something. We can even do that with our own “self”, which is why the reflective level of consciousness IS referred to as “Self-Consciousness”. The ego, in a sense, is that ‘concept of self’ that we create to have a logical handle on .. on ourselves.
We can do that; we can encompass our individual locus of attention and action as an object of thought. We can even do that with reason itself, the mechanism of the rational mind; when reason becomes an object of rational analysis itself, unfortunately we end up down a rabbit hole with Sir Bertrand Russell, and call it “logical positivism”. Bertie lost me with the proposition that “anything that cannot be presented rationally cannot exist”, or some such limitation – putting the limitation of thought on the outer world, in essence.
His error comes from the same root as trying to make an object of consciousness out of consciousness. Think of it this way, reason is a system, and there are thoughts, ideas, concepts that you can wield outside the realm of reason. Rationality can’t be applied to the system of reason itself.
In Douglas Hofstadter’s utterly brilliant GODEL ESCHER BACH, he explains that there are always going to be questions raised within a system of thought or analysis that cannot be answered within that system, a ‘higher level’ of analysis must be applied to answer those questions whose resolution lies outside that system.
Consciousness IS the system of awareness; the easiest way to describe it is to say that consciousness, a form of energy, is the energy of awareness. It is the energy that awareness, and almost without reflection we can admit we understand what awareness is – that too is beyond the realm of reason, and so cannot be pinned down logically so easily, but we can grasp the concept without grabbing onto “the idea”, so to speak.
If that were so, the next ‘logical’ step is to say that what we experience as consciousness, awareness both internal and external, might well be considered the animating principle of the universe, the unifying force whose search has been going on for centuries; the way I analyze the stories I’ve read, Sir Isaac Newton had a nervous breakdown after understanding what gravity was and how it operated. Ultimately he got the job as Lord of the Mint (he was, after all, well-connected), but what drove him to break down was the leap from comprehending gravity to understanding unified field theory. Intuitively, he could have seen it, but getting it to translate into rational discourse proved beyond his power. My theory is that he didn’t have the reflexive concept of ‘consciousness’ from which to gain enough perspective to translate from the intuitive concept the rational idea.
This always amazed me about 16th/17th century philosophy – they literally had no clue. They knew little of the mechanism of consciousness in the brain beyond the inferred fact that consciousness was somehow “located” in the brain; when reading Kant, I felt that what he wrote was such a jumble of related but not identical concepts that, ultimately, I had to put it down and figure it out for myself. It’s taken centuries of scientific (rational) inquiry and experience and technological development to even begin to understand the function of the brain. It is my belief (watch carefully the use and development of that concept) that the form and structure of the brain siphons and filters the way consciousness operates in the physical world; when you think about it, we can only access data, information and even experience after it’s been run through the structures and functions of the brain; data has to be structured in such a way that it is accessible and usable by the mind whose locus is that particular brain.
“Let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start…”
For me, the understanding of consciousness, as an object of consciousness, began when I stumbled on Richard Bucke’s COSMIC CONSCIOUSNESS, when I was an undergrad in college. In the book, Bucke separates out levels of functioning of consciousness in the world:
SIMPLE CONSCIOUSNESS is externally-based awareness, aware of the environment, but not aware of oneself, individually, as the aware part of that environment. Animals most directly express what I’m talking about, on two levels. I am going to use the hierarchical terminology of the Linnaeus taxonomy, so if I speak of “higher” and “lower” forms, it is only in terms of complexity, not ‘better’ or ‘worse’. The level of awareness exhibited by the non-human members of the animal kingdom is straightforward, not complex – as far as we’ve been able to ascertain. From what we know about brain structure and function, the mammalian brain (as differentiated from the human brain) doesn’t have the developed mechanisms (e.g., the frontal lobes of the brain) to encompass awareness of self as an object of consciousness. It’s level of concept is externally oriented, the animal (again, in general; we can talk about gorillas in and out of the mist at a later date) has no reflexive capacity, but it does qualify as “aware”, engaged with and mobile in its environment.
At an even more basic level, I would posit that consciousness pervades the universe, but its expression is limited to the mechanisms of response that it has. Trees, flowers, plants – these growing things, these animate objects – have PLANT CONSCIOUSNESS, they respond to their environment, they respond to the sunlight that feeds them, they respond to the soil that nourishes them, they respond to the water that replenishes them. To a degree, these are all automated, or automatic principles, without what we think of as ‘thought’. To which I would say, I wholeheartedly agree; a tree, a blade of grass is as without thought as an elephant is without wings; it’s superfluous. I would even venture say that mobility is actually a second level of consciousness, which involves everything that immobile simple consciousness encompasses, and yet mobility gives consciousness more complexity; suddenly, it’s not just responding to the environment, it involves moving around in the environment that includes so many more levels of activity – navigation, threat and change chief among them – that it does seem to qualify as a more complex system of awareness, call it MOBILE SIMPLE CONSCIOUSNESS, or ANIMAL CONSCIOUSNESS.
SELF CONSCIOUSNESS represents an additional layer of complexity to the task of consciousness, which is awareness. I would venture to say here that the reflexive ability of consciousness is the defining difference between “animal consciousness” and “human consciousness”; being able to generate an object of consciousness is the first act of abstract thought, and just as abstract thought is a development of the growing human mind and brain (consciousness itself doesn’t “grow”, it flows) when the human child grows into adolescence, this reflexive capacity develops only in the “higher animals”; in fact, as I tried to indicate earlier, this sense of complexity is the use of “higher” I’m referring to.
We can teach monkeys to use signs to communicate, there is consciousness there, there is a level of awareness that approaches the complexity of human consciousness, but human consciousness can define itself independently of its social environment, “I am” is the defining output of the thinking of humanity. Would the presence of self-awareness in the lab chimp be a mental construct, or a physical distinction? When a monkey points to itself, indicates itself, is it differentiating a “self” from “an environment”, or is it merely distinguishing itself from other beings it interacts with? So, then, my response would be the latter; I believe consciousness as experienced in the physical world is more determined by the form and structure of the brain than we really like to think about. And, ultimately, my point would be that this structure and the limitations of the mechanism of the brain don’t apply to consciousness itself; it is energy, not an object, and behaves in less concrete, less specific ways than a physical object would.
Think of the brain as the mechanism and engine of awareness, consciousness as the energy that fuels it. When water is put into a glass, in shape it conforms to its environment; when in the form of a river, it carves the path it travels without effectively changing each passing drop of water; it travels independently of the riverbed as well as in it, when in the mechanism of the riverbed, it operates one way, when outside the riverbed it takes the appropriate form from the circumstances in the environment. It would seem the riverbed defines the river, when actually it is the flow of the water over time that defines the riverbed. But you can see that different environments define different forms of water in the environment, but the water essentially remains two parts oxygen to one part hydrogen, bonded on the molecular level. So, too, consciousness remains the same in essentials, changed by the mechanism of brain and mind to operate in the physical world.
SELF CONSCIOUSNESS, as it is understood intuitively, is the awareness of the ‘self’ as mobile and active agent in the environment with the added level of awareness of itself as an object of its own consciousness. It is this problem of consciousness being its own object that makes the Tao Te Ching so truthful – the system of consciousness is so large that it’s taken mankind millenia to be able to consciously get a grasp of what consciousness itself is.
This ability to create an object of consciousness out of one’s own self is a radical transformation of consciousness. I read, in Julian Jaynes’ big-titled tome, that when you look back on the Bible, it is less the story of ‘creation’ than the story of the development of individualized consciousness. I used to wonder how did the hominids and primitive peoples know enough to survive long enough to learn how to survive, in the first place? Jaynes’ theory explains the process of ‘the bicameral mind’, one that develops the awareness of the distinction between itself and everything else, and creates a ‘self’ in order to comprehend its own self-ness. The story of the Garden of Eden is coming of self-awareness (the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil is, itself, the knowledge of one’s own distinctiveness from the environment), and what follows is the development of what would become individuated consciousness.
COSMIC CONSCIOUSNESS is what Richard Bucke referred to as the next stage in the evolution of consciousness; an experience of our direct connection to the universe-at-large; what Aldous Huxley was referring to as Tat Twam Asi, All That Is. We used to be connected to both the inner and the outer worlds in ways we can only imagine, at this point in the development of human consciousness. Yet we are connected, internally to the larger universe. The problem here, as students, is that the rational mind is excluded from this experience; it happens in other than our rational minds, so the rational mind cannot understand nor explain it.
Again, in Tolle’s first two major books (I’ve read both The Power of Now and A New Earth, listened to the audiobooks repeatedly, and found them so profoundly more than interesting that I gave away both the print and the audio version, and I’ll have to scare up another pair from somewhere), he asks us to experience that realm of no-thought, that mental space between thoughts, which would indicate that, if “space” exists between thoughts, then the mind was doing more than thinking, and it was this non-thinking part of the mind that experienced in unmediated fashion.
The discovery Bucke made was that this awareness of our direct connection to the larger universe is not essentially part of us, part of our understanding of the universe from the outset; since this connection has to be discovered for and by each person, there will be some who develop with this connection, and some who grow older having missed the connection. I truly do think it’s that simple.
And it’s this awareness of connection to the larger universe, both internal and external, that Bucke is referring to. He puts the cut-off point for making the connection at age 33, the mystical age at which the Christ died. If you remain ego-bound and unable to connect immediately with the consciousness of what is around you, after the age of 33 the opportunity will be lost. See, I don’t know; I had my eyes opened before the age of 22; I’d already discovered Huxley, who gave my discovering mind a direction in which to look. Early on, when it was still a fad, I began to study transcendental meditation, and have, if somewhat irregularly, continued to practice. What I’ve learned is that IT’S ALL CONSCIOUSNESS.
Some forms of consciousness are more complex than others, and there are yet others more complex than ours, but IT’S ALL CONSCIOUSNESS.
So, when the Eastern philosophers talk about “All That Is”, that’s what they’re pointing to – EVERYTHING IS CONSCIOUSNESS. The observer changes the observed process; it’s been proven. On a very profound level, it’s all consciousness responding to itself.
And how to we understand how consciousness works in the world? By analyzing the mechanisms by which it operates in the world.