Not long ago, I had the same experience that many of us have had over the years; I got a wisdom tooth removed. Instead of my usual dentist tackling the job, he recommended that I see an oral surgeon. I made an appointment, found her (the surgeon) to be excellent, and we set a date for the work to be done a week or so later. It will be a long time before I forget what happened that day, not because of the trauma of the event, but more so because everything was so untraumatic. Here is exactly what I remember: sitting in the chair, the assistant hooking me up to some kind of tube, and waiting in the chair for what seemed like a long time. During this period, I was totally convinced that I was conscious. I kept wondering when the drugs were going to kick in, and when they were going to start the procedure. I’ll admit, in fact, that I was anxious for it to be over and done with. Finally, once I saw the assistant come back into the room, I said to her: “When do you think the doctor will begin?” She looked at me quizzically, and said with a smile: “But it’s all over. The tooth is out!”
Now, these observations are not meant merely to be reflections on dentistry, or on wisdom teeth and their removal, or even on pain and trauma (or lack thereof). Instead, what struck me then, and what has been on my mind ever since, has more to do with the nature of what it means to be conscious. Most of the time, we understand it to be some kind of direct personal awareness of ourselves, that is, of our person, our bodies, and what we call our personalities, as well as of the world around us with all of its usual component parts. After all, we say we know when we are awake and conscious. Or at least we think we do. And we know the difference between waking consciousness and the unconscious state of dreaming. When we emerge from sleep, for example, we say that we wake up, that is, we transition from the unconscious to the conscious state. Furthermore, all of us are familiar with what is sometimes referred to as the hypnagogic state, that twilight experience somewhere between full wakefulness and the state of sleep. During this time, it is not unusual to “see” abstract forms or shapes or colors, or even to experience what appear to be faces or people or objects that may or may not be familiar. So, at this point can we say that we are conscious, or unconscious, or merely in some sort of limbo in between?
To a certain extent, there is a kind of circularity about our thinking when it comes to a normal understanding of consciousness. In other words, it may not at all be unfair to say that we are aware because we are aware. Remember Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum,” I think, therefore I am? He might well have said “I am, because I think I am” (Sum, quia cogito sum). And yet, it is also possible to be, and not to know it. Otherwise, how is it that we come back to consciousness each morning upon awakening, after having been unconscious of the fact that “we are” (at least in our normal state) for seven or eight hours? And how did I “know” that I was conscious in the dentist chair, and yet not know that the oral surgeon had yanked a tooth out of my head? Consciousness, then, must be something more than mere awareness of ourselves, our bodies, our feelings, and our surroundings. It must somehow “endure” periods of unconsciousness, that is, when we are not fully aware of ourselves and our surroundings, but when we are “somewhere else.” As an old friend of mine used to say, “Where do I go when I am not here?” Another way to think of this is to say that consciousness is not necessarily tied only to our being in a body. I am aware that this is a somewhat controversial statement, and many a neuroscientist might want to rush in to prove me wrong. Just as many a believer, or a mystic for that matter, would say, well of course that is the case.
What is definitely clear is that we go in and out of consciousness. This happens to all of us with a frequency that may be astounding, and which many of us may not at all be comfortable admitting to. But who has not had the experience of doing something in an automatic way? Did I put those car keys on the dresser, or on the kitchen table, or for that matter are they still in the car? And here we begin, too, associating the notion of memory with that of consciousness. What is memory, after all, if not a conscious thought in the present about a conscious action (or an event, or person or thing consciously experienced) sometime in the past? But we can also remember dreams. Therefore, it must be said that memory is bigger than that, and it can capture both conscious and unconscious events. Without memory, our experience of ourselves (and our bodies, our feelings, our surroundings, our loves etc.) would be a paltry thing indeed. We would have to reinvent ourselves from moment to moment, as we became conscious of ourselves in each new instant. And what kind of life would that be? Who would want to be conscious, if that were what it meant to be aware?
And then there are also so-called states of altered consciousness. Some of these may be alcohol or drug-induced (purposefully or not), or merely something that happens “out of the blue,” as with déjà vu,when we have a clear feeling of having experienced something or been somewhere before, but we “know” we have not. Altered states can be experienced in deep meditative trances, as well, or again in the hypnagogic, or the hypnopompic, state (the latter occurring between the end of sleep and the beginning of full wakefulness). And who has not occasionally had a dream so real as to be convinced we were fully there, just as in our normal state of wakefulness? For the most part, reality is something we are convinced exists only when we are awake and aware, in other words, when we are conscious. But does reality, itself, not have its own kind of existence? Otherwise, what exactly do we return to after having been unconscious? Is it merely our memories of earlier experience? And is there nothing but this flimsy hope that we and others, our loved ones in particular perhaps, will have similar simultaneous memories of similar past experiences? Is that the sum total of our reality?
I think not. I think that consciousness, and memories of consciousness, and the nature of reality itself, are all far more than our normal awareness of these phenomena. That has been my experience anyway. I think that it is quite possible to be conscious, while no longer being aware of, or even particularly needing, the body. Reality, consciousness if you will, is so much more than our daily experience of it would lead us to believe. I cannot offer proof of this in the sense of something empirically verifiable and repeatable, as is normally required by science. No one can. Neither can it, of course, be disproved. All we can say is that we have now entered into the realm of belief, or of subjective, personal experience, and not that of unassailable physical proof.
At least most of the time, we can all unequivocally agree that each of us also has his or her own perfectly acceptable and workable normal sense of what it means to be conscious. And isn’t that enough? The answer is, yes, at least for the most part. Otherwise, life could become awfully complicated, and we normally need all of our energies simply to deal with the duties and requirements of day-to-day existence. But then, every so often, we get a sense that work and play, and pleasure and pain, are not the sum total of all there is. We see, or we intuit, or we experience something larger, something filled with wonder, with grandeur, with resplendence, something more than the tug and pull of the ebb and flow of everyday existence. The tooth is out. You were there, but you were also not there. You were somewhere else not governed, not ruled by the laws of normal, waking consciousness. Is it a dream, a wish, a fantasy? Each person must answer that question for him or herself. But, I would advise, do not rush to judgment. Don’t assume too much, just because we have not devised ways to measure what cannot be measured.
Consciousness of reality is not necessarily limited to conscious reality. To see has never been restricted to the physical eyes alone, to hear is not a function only of the ears, and to know, to envision, and to experience can be far, far beyond what any of us normally, in our everyday lives, allows it to be.
There is an old Zen koan that asks “Where are you between two thoughts?” Where do I go when I am not here? The answer given in the Indian scriptures, the Upanishads, is as follows: “There the eye goes not, speech goes not, nor the mind…Other it is than the known. And moreover above the unknown.”*
In the end, whatever consciousness may be, it is not restricted, it is not limited, and it surely is more than we can ever devise to say about it.
*As quoted in Joseph Campbell, Myths To Live By (New York: Bantam Books, 1972 through 1988), p. 132