Paul’s recent essay, “The Nature of Consciousness, or Your Tooth Has Already Been Pulled,” is brilliant, mysterious and fascinating. For many years I have felt that there is no topic more interesting than this one, and Paul has elucidated it beautifully. Consciousness, it seems to me, is at the root of “being,” but exactly what it is seems to be an ever evolving revelation. And the more one knows, the less one knows… or to put it another way, each flash of understanding about consciousness seems to light up vistas of inquiry, mystery and questions. Are there three levels of human consciousness as some people say — superconsciousness, consciousness and sub-consciousness? If so, what exactly defines those states? What is unconsciousness, and does it mean that we do not exist when we are in that state of being? What is “elevated” consciousness, and how can we get there?
What is the nature of the consciousness of animals? Surely they are conscious, but who among us can say that we can see clearly through the eyes of our beloved animal friends and know for sure what the reality of their being is like? What about trees and other plants? Do they have some kind of consciousness? There are empirical studies that produce convincing data showing how plants respond to music, pleasant talking, violence, unpleasant noise, and even prayer. What does this mean? Are they conscious on some level? Does the mineral world have some form of consciousness that we cannot begin to imagine? Do the rocks and boulders and mountains dream for thousands or millions of years? Is the planet itself a living organism with some kind of consciousness that we cannot fathom? After all, we call the Earth our “Mother.”
Robert and I live with lots of animals here at the dead end of a dirt road, deep in the woods. I am constantly aware of their consciousness as we interact with them, and frustrated by the distinctions and barriers between our various kinds of consciousness, being, and communication methods. I often feel that they know things I don’t know, and wish I could “talk” with them and understand more about the world. Many times both Robert and I have felt that the scores of large colorful koi in our half-acre pond, each one with its own name and “personality,” were trying to tell us something. Sometimes when they see us by the pond, they begin to perform elaborately beautiful aquatic dances, tracing patterns in the surface of the pond water, as if they were trying to spell it out for us. Some of them leap repeatedly out of the water or scuttle across its surface like Flipper used to do on TV back in the 60s. I’d give a lot to trade my consciousness with that of one of our koi for just a few minutes and find out what it is to be koi.
I suspect that all living species may experience this same interspecies consciousness veil among our various groups. I’m thinking here not only of communication, but something greater — a sense of what it is like to BE the other — an understanding of each other’s consciousness. Living with lots of species, we frequently see interactions among them. While many of these interspecies scenes are violent and predatory, some of them are playful, and a few suggest a tangible sense of wonder between members of very different species. Two of our last eight dogs have been so fascinated by fish and frogs and anything that lives in the water, that they were happy to crouch by the shore and stare into that other watery world for an hour at a time.
Recently our white Cairn Terrier, Scrappy, experienced a week of interaction with a large bass in our pond. Every evening when we walked the dogs down to the pond, the bass came right up to the shore at the surface. Scrappy would run to the water’s edge and crouch nose to nose with the bass, each animal staring into the other’s eyes. If one of them moved along the shore, the other one followed, back and forth. They were clearly fascinated by one another, and I by them. The scene was such a poignant demonstration of the division among the species, each one living in its own world with its own form of consciousness, isolated from the other in its own way of being, wondering about the other.
Leaving aside the mineral kingdom and the rest of the animal kingdom for the moment, there is more than enough mystery on the unexplored frontiers of human consciousness to keep us occupied for eternity. Today I had the pleasure of watching a series of very interesting documentaries on the Science Channel (an all too rare TV experience) about the nature of consciousness as revealed in autistic savants and brain trauma savants. Some of these half-hour documentaries were about people who were born with brain anomalies. Others were portraits of people who had experienced strokes or accidents that left them with changed brains. What they all had in common were strikingly brilliant capabilities that we would normally expect from people we label “geniuses,” but these people were very impaired in other ways.
The stories of accident victims who immediately became excellent artists or musicians virtually overnight suggest particularly compelling implications. After surviving serious head trauma, one man who had never sat at a keyboard before suddenly became an amazingly proficient pianist, even though he could not read or write music. Another head trauma victim has become famous for his beautiful, prolific artwork, and yet another for his fine sculptures. These people did not exhibit such capabilities before their brains were altered. What does this say about consciousness? Doesn’t it suggest that the consciousness of a musician, an artist and a sculptor lay dormant within them before their accidents? Does it also suggest that perhaps we all possess magnificent genius and proficiencies in areas that we think are completely beyond our understanding?
I suspect that we are all much more than we know. There may be a sleeping genius within each of us. The stories of the trauma survivor savants suggest that our “consciousness” is only the tip of the iceberg and that we live in a constant state of self-imposed limitations.
As Paul suggests, memory seems to have a lot to do with our perception that we are conscious. Are we less conscious as we age and become forgetful? What if we could remember all the way back to our birth… and before that? What would our consciousness be like then? It seems likely to me that each of us has forgotten many orders of magnitude more than we remember. Is it possible that in some altered state of consciousness – some other state of being – we could access all of those memories? Is our forgetfulness and our limited consciousness itself just a temporary condition? How can we recover?
Perhaps the most controversial question about consciousness concerns whether or not it is necessarily tied to the body and the brain at all. There are metaphysicians and scientific researchers who claim that some practitioners of eastern meditation techniques are capable of entering into deep trance-like states of bliss during which their hearts eventually stop beating, their blood stops flowing, they stop breathing, and they appear to be dead. Even if they remain in this “living death state” for an hour, they come out of their meditations not only quite alive, but refreshed, rejuvenated and enlightened.
These reports may be very difficult for westerners to believe, but even the occidental mind knows that when we sit very still and enter into a state of deep contemplation or prayer or simple rest, our breathing and metabolic processes slow down dramatically, whereas our state of consciousness expands and our feeling of wellbeing improves. There is much more to learn and demonstrate about this phenomenon, but it clearly suggests that consciousness may not necessarily be entirely dependent upon the physical body or even linked to it at all in certain states of life and death. We are on the threshold of real empirical evidence that our “Being” does not depend on life or death, but is much more a matter of our “Consciousness.”