By Peter Russell
In modern physics as well as in ancient eastern texts like the Upanishads, consciousness has been characterized in terms of light. Could there be a fundamental connection between light of the physical world and light of consciousness?
As well as furthering our understanding of meditation, Maharishi [Mahesh Yogi] wanted us to have clear experiences of the states of consciousness he was describing. That could only come from prolonged periods of deep meditation. At first we meditated for three or four hours a day, but as the course progressed, our practice times increased. Six weeks into our three-month stay, we were spending most of the day in meditation – and much of the night as well.
During these long meditations, my habitual mental chatter began to fade away. Thoughts about what was going on outside, what time it was, how the meditation was progressing, or what I wanted to say or do later occupied less and less of my attention. Random memories of the past no longer flitted through my mind. My feelings settled down, and my breath grew so gentle as to virtually disappear. Mental activity became fainter and fainter, until finally my thinking mind fell completely silent. In Maharishi’s terminology, I had transcended (literally ‘gone beyond’) thinking.
Indian teachings call this state samadhi, meaning ‘still mind.’ They identify it as a state of consciousness fundamentally different from the three major states we normally experience: waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. In waking consciousness we are aware of the world perceived by the senses. In dreaming we are aware of worlds conjured by the imagination. In deep sleep there is no awareness, neither of outer world nor inner world. In samadhi there is awareness – one is wide awake – but there is no object of awareness. It is pure consciousness, consciousness before it takes on the various forms and qualities of a particular experience.
In the analogy of a film projector, this fourth state of consciousness corresponds to a projector running without any film, so that only white light falls on the screen. Likewise, in samadhi there is the light of pure consciousness, but nothing else. It is the faculty of consciousness without any content.
The Isha Upanishad, an ancient Indian text, says of this fourth state:
It is not outer awareness,
It is not inner awareness,
Nor is it a suspension of awareness.
It is not knowing,
It is not unknowing,
Nor is it knowingness itself.
It can neither be seen nor understood,
It cannot be given boundaries.
It is ineffable and beyond thought.
It is indefinable
It is known only through becoming it.
Similar descriptions can be found in almost every culture of the world. Using remarkably similar terms, the fifth century Christian mystic Dionysius described it this way:
It is not soul, or mind…
It is not order or greatness or littleness…
It is not immovable nor in motion
nor at rest…
Nor does it belong to the category of non-existence, or to that of existence… Nor can any affirmation or negation apply it.
The Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki referred to it as a ‘state of Absolute Emptiness':
There is no time, no space,becoming, no thingness.
Pure experience is the mind seeing itself as reflected in itself…This is possible only when the mind is sunyata [emptiness] itself; that is when the mind is devoid of all its possible contents except itself.
The Essence of Self
When the mind is devoid of all content, we not only find absolute serenity and peace, we also discover the true nature of the self.
Usually we derive our sense of self from the various things that distinguish us as individuals – our bodies and their appearance, our history, our nationality, the roles we play, our work, our social and financial status, what we own, what others think of us. We also derive an identity from the thoughts and feelings we have, from our beliefs and values, from our creative and intellectual abilities, from our character and personality. These, and many other aspects of our lives, contribute to our sense of who we are.
However, such an identity is forever at the mercy of events, forever vulnerable, and forever in need of protection and support. If anything on which our identity depends changes, or threatens to change, our very sense of self is threatened. If someone criticises us, for example, we may feel far more upset than the criticism warrants, responding in ways that have more to do with defending or reinforcing our damaged self-image than with addressing the criticism itself.
In addition to deriving an identity from how we experience ourselves in the world, we also derive a sense of self from the very fact that we are experiencing. If there is experience, then there must, we assume, be an experiencer; there must be an ‘I’ who is doing the experiencing. Whatever is going on in mind, there is this sense that I am the subject of it all.
But what exactly is this sense of ‘I-ness’? I use the word ‘I’ hundreds of times a day without hesitation. I say that I am thinking or seeing something, that I have a feeling or desire, that I know or remember something. It is the most familiar, most intimate, most obvious aspect of myself. I know exactly what I mean by ‘I’ – until I try to describe it or define it. Then I run into trouble.
Looking for the self is rather like being in a dark room with a flashlight shining it around trying to find the source of the light. All one would find are the various objects in the room that the light falls upon. It is the same when I try to look for the subject of all experience. All I find are the various ideas, images, and feelings that the attention falls upon. But these are all objects of experience; they cannot therefore be the subject of the experience.
Although the self may never be known as an object of experience, it can be known in another, more intimate and immediate way. When the mind is silent, and the thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and memories with which we habitually identify have fallen away, then what remains is the essence of self, the pure subject without an object. What we then find is not a sense of ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that,’ but just ‘I am.’
In this state, you know the essence of self, and you know that essence to be pure consciousness. You know this to be what you really are. You are not a being who is conscious. You are consciousness. Period.
This core identity has none of the uniqueness of the individual self. Being beyond all attributes and identifying characteristics, your sense of I-ness is indistinguishable from mine. The light of consciousness shining in you, which you label as ‘I’, is the same light that I label as ‘I.’ In this we are identical.
I am the light. And so are you.
Beyond Time and Space
This essential self is eternal; it never changes. It is pure consciousness, and pure consciousness is timeless.
Our normal experience of the passing of time is derived from change – the cycle of day and night, the beating of the heart, the passing of thoughts. In deep meditation, when all awareness of things has ceased and the mind is completely still, there is no experience of change, and nothing by which to mark the passing of time. I may know I have been sitting in absolute stillness, but as to how long I have been there, I may have no idea. It could have been a minute, or it could have been an hour. Time as we know it disappears. There is simply now.
Not only is the essential self beyond time, it also is beyond space. If we are asked to locate our own consciousness, most people sense it to be somewhere in the head. Right now this book probably appears a couple of feet in front of you. You may be aware of walls around you; the ground some feet below you; and your arms, torso, legs, and feet are also out there, a short distance from the point of your perceiving self.
The feeling that our consciousness is located somewhere in the head seems to make sense. Our brains are in our heads, and the brain is somehow associated with conscious experience. We could find it strange if, for example, the brain was in the head, but our consciousness was in our knees.
However, all is not as it seems. The apparent location of consciousness does not actually have anything to do with the placement of the brain. It depends on the placement of the sense organs.
Our primary senses, our eyes and ears, happen to be situated in the head. Thus the central point of our perception, the point from which we seem to be experiencing the world, is somewhere, that is, in the middle of the head. The fact that our brains are also in our heads is just a coincidence, as the following simple thought experiment bears out.
Imagine that your eyes and ears were transplanted to your knees, so that you now observe the world from this new vantage point. Where would you now experience your self to be – in your head or down by your knees? Your brain may still be in your head, but your head is no longer the central point of your perception. You would now be looking out onto the world from a different point, and you might well imagine your consciousness to be in your knees.
In short, the impression that your consciousness exists at a particular place in the world is an illusion. Everything we experience is a construct within consciousness. Our sense of being a unique self is merely another construct of the mind. Quite naturally, we place this image of the self at the centre of our perceived world, giving us the sense of being in the world. But the truth is just the opposite: It is all within us.
You have no location in space. Space is in you.
The Universal Light
Here again we see close parallels between the light of consciousness and the light of physics. When we considered physical light from its own frame of reference, we found that distance and time disappeared. The realm of light seems to be somehow beyond space and time. Likewise, when we consider the nature of pure consciousness, space and time disappear. In both cases there is only the ever-present moment.
In physics, light turns out to be absolute. Space, time, mass, and energy are not as fixed as we once thought they were. The new absolutes are those of light – the speed of light in a vacuum and the quantum of action of a photon. Similarly, in the realm of mind, the faculty of consciousness is absolute. It is the common ground of all experience – including that of space and time. Consciousness itself, like the light in a projector, is unchanging, eternal.
Every photon of light is an identical quantum of action. The same is true of consciousness. The light of consciousness shining in me is the same light that shines in you – and in every sentient being.
These parallels suggest there may be some deeper relationship between the light of physics and consciousness. Could they share a common ground – a common ground that manifests in the physical realm as light, and in the realm of mind as the light of consciousness that shines in every being?
God’s first command in Genesis was ‘Let there be light,’ and from this light the whole of creation was born. It might, however, be more accurate to say, ‘the whole of creation is born,’ for light underlies everything that happens. This is true in the physical world, where every interaction involves the exchange of photons. And it is true in the subjective realm, where the light of consciousness is the common ground of every experience.
I am not suggesting that light is God, but that light may be the first manifestation of the underlying ground of all existence, the subtlest level of creation, the closest we can come to that which lies beyond all form. In the realm of conscious experience, the pure self – the inner light that lies behind the countless forms arising in the mind – is where we touch the divine. This explains why many of those who have explored deep within and discovered their true nature have made one of the most contentious and confusing of all mystical claims – the assertion that ‘I am God.’
Excerpted from From Science to God,
Yogi Impressions, Mumbai, 2003
Over the past 20 years, Peter Russell has been a consultant to IBM, Apple, American Express, Barclays Bank, Nike among other major corporations. Realizing a personal synthesis of the mystical and scientific, has been his enduring quest.
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