Consciousness v. Awareness

As you are reading this, for a second, just turn your attention to who is reading. In that split second of shifting awareness, what you feel is a presence, don’t you? As you are reading, you become aware of who is reading. Well, that presence is your soul. It’s not your mind that might be saying, “Oh, I think I’ll have a cup of coffee.” There is a presence, and that presence is in the on/off of your thoughts: there is a thought flickering on and off and in that off there is a presence.”

– Deepak Chopra, The Flaws of Perception

Dr. Jaime G. Corvalan, MD, FACS

Consciousness, it may be said, is all that there is – it is life, it is the essence of the universe, yet it simultaneously transcends both of these phenomena. This is the perplexing yet miraculous beauty of transcendent consciousness; however, it has often been misunderstood – and confused – with the concept of “awareness.”

Western civilization, over the last few hundred years, has developed a mechanistic world view in which we have come to believe that everything can be explained in a phenomenological way – everything behaves according to a series of knowable rules and laws which can be deduced, known and harnessed for our materialistic purposes. Nature, once seen as a miraculous entity, filled with spirits and deities, could now be reduced to knowable patterns and dry equations, and could be brought to heal at the altar of the human mind.

This materialist view drained nature – an indeed, humanity – of all of her miraculous glory and divinity; and, in doing so, completely missed the mark by replacing the notion of “awareness” for “transcendent consciousness.” The wonderful author Anne Baring describes the characteristics of the Western World view that has taken hold of us, cutting us off from our intuitive connection with our souls, that which is much deeper than the mind:

•  Matter is primary and gives rise to mind as a secondary phenomenon. Consciousness is therefore a by-product of the physical brain.

•  There is no survival of consciousness after death. The death of the brain is the death of the individual.

•  God is an unnecessary hypothesis and the concept of the soul an irrelevance.

•  The life of the universe has come into being by blind chance.

•  There is no transcendent purpose or meaning to our lives.

This perspective places the locus of life at the most shallow surfaces of our being – in our senses and in our minds. Yet, Deepak Chopra rightly points out that our sensory perception is our least reliable means of knowing our world:

. . . we cannot rely on sensory observation alone to know the essential nature of reality. For the last 300 years, the whole basis of science has relied on our observational senses; but our senses are the least reliable test of what we call reality. My senses tell me that the ground I am sitting on is stationary and yet we know it is spinning at a dizzying speed, hurtling through space at thousands of miles an hour. My senses tell me that, from where I am standing, the Earth is flat. Nobody believes that any more.”

A honey bee perceives a rose completely differently than do we or any other life form.

A honey bee perceives a rose completely differently than do we or any other life form.

Our sensory apparatus gives rise to what I would call “Awareness.” We receive input through our senses (of taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing) of which our brains and central nervous systems make sense. Because we sense it, we are aware of it – or so we think. This immediately brings to bear an important point – what we believe we are perceiving is actually an abstraction of it – it’s what our brains make of the data received through our senses.

Let’s take a simple example. Consider a rose. When you look at one, you might describe its color and fragrance. But color and fragrance don’t exist in an objective way! They are characteristics of our sensory apparatus (our eyes and noses) and what our brains do with that information. To a dog, a rose is perceived in a completely different way! Or consider a honey bee – because it “sees” in the ultraviolet spectrum, it will perceive a rose in an entirely different way. Indeed, the nature of what one perceives really depends on who or what is perceiving, and how one perceives!

Plato pointing upwards, signifying Higher Forms, with Aristotle discusses empiricism; from Raphael's painting "The School of Athens."

Plato pointing upwards, signifying Higher Forms, with Aristotle discusses empiricism; from Raphael’s painting “The School of Athens.”

So what is the essential nature of matter or indeed anything in the universe? Well, the simple truth is that the answer lies beyond our tools of perception, beyond simple awareness and, indeed, beyond the abstracting powers of the human mind. This is a notion that was described by Plato in his Theory of Forms and has been taken up by many cultures and individuals over time.

Kant’s notion of the “Noumenon,” of the “thing in itself,” describes a reality that precedes perception, that is known (as far as it can be known) without the use of our physical senses.

This (and many other traditions, including Hinduism and Buddhism) reopens the door to the fact that “Consciousness” precedes “Awareness.”

I return again to the wonderful work of Anne Baring and her articulation of a philosophy (The Perennial Philosophy, actually) that more correctly understands the nature of existence and restores the divinity to nature and all life:

• Consciousness is primary and matter secondary. That is to say, the phenomenal world emerges from an invisible dimension or implicate order of reality.

• The universe is conscious and there are many dimensions to this consciousness. ‘In My Father’s House there are many mansions.’

• Our human consciousness is integral to that greater consciousness, even though it is still partially developed or immature.

• Consciousness in some form survives the death of the physical body.

• What we have called God or spirit is the divine ground as well as the process of life in the universe, our planet and ourselves. There is nothing outside or beyond God.

• The soul is a vast and complex field or web of relationships connecting invisible spirit with the phenomenal world. Our body/mind organism is intimately connected to that wider soul, field or web of relationships.

• The purpose of our lives on this planet is to be reunited with the source or ground of our being.”

So, transcendent consciousness is the ground of all being, yet it transcends the very fabric of time and space. You might say that something wakes up in matter, that we are aspects of this transcendent energy, all participating in this grand web of life and experience, each and every component playing an integral, divine role in this magnificent production. We are so much more than what our tools of perception and abstraction make of us, and so is every aspect of the universe!