If you want to see an academic break down, just ask them for the definition of consciousness. In virtually any field of study that includes the topic, there are few matters that can invoke a state of confusion like those related to our apparent ability to be aware. This makes it a great subject for contemplative meditation, in addition to clearly being a potential source of useful ideas related to understanding the mindful state. Predictably, the dissection of the conscious experience has been an obsession of prolific thinkers for most of recorded history. For the sake of brevity, we’ll only explore it from a few angles to see what they can tell us about the mind, and how we may become mindful.
Consciousness in Eastern Practices
The Eastern world is home to some of the earliest records of concepts equitable to consciousness. I say equitable because historical language barriers make it impossible to identify the term with precision. Some information dates back several hundred centuries BC, and most of the ideas come from philosophies/religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. Traditions arising from such groups has made consciousness more of a popular consideration in the East, standing in stark contrast to its confinement to academics in much of Western culture.
There are many specific details that define each Eastern view of consciousness. We will mainly avoid them here because they would more than likely hinder our understanding at this level. However, I certainly suggest that you look deeper when the time feels right. For our purposes, the most important point is that consciousness here is typically framed as a natural expression of the universe as a whole. Our personal experiences of being conscious are not believed to be generated by the body, though they are commonly acknowledged to be impacted by the association. In other words, views originating from these Eastern perspectives suggest that we are influenced (and ultimately corrupted) by the act of being conscious. This is very supportive of our previous discussions about mindfulness and the moment because it places the “true you” outside of the time-ruled material world.
Consciousness in Western Philosophy
One of the most striking differences between Western and Eastern views of consciousness is the West’s material focus. Aristotle was among the earliest recorded Western philosophers (omitting potential Incan and Mayan contributions here because information is scarce) to theorize on something close to consciousness (language limits apply here too). While he likely took great influence from Eastern and Middle Eastern concepts, Aristotle focused on consciousness as it is manifested in the observable material world. His refocusing of importance on the physical world would shape the course of consciousness studies in the West for over two millennia.
By the time of Descartes in the 17th C, Western notions of consciousness were based almost entirely on physics and anatomy. Descartes then introduced one of the most notorious concepts in the history of philosophy. The mind-body problem asks if mental processes are composed of the same substances as our bodies and the rest of the physical world. It seems like a rational question to ask, since they are clearly related somehow involving the brain, yet remain so different in apparent form. The problem proved to be very divisive among academics. Two schools of thought emerged in response: dualism and monism.
Descartes offered a dualistic approach, suggesting that thoughts and the physical world are materially different but can interact through a specialized part of the brain called the pineal gland. His theory and further variations on the dualistic perspective proved unpopular, though no less so than those spawned by the monist standpoint. Monism holds that the body and mind are made of a single indivisible material. The adaption of this view was often motivated by religious concerns, as it tends to better coexist with theistic (God-based) beliefs. A lack of progress from all sides of the debate has led to the mind-body problem being widely abandoned in favor of other approaches to understanding consciousness.
Consciousness in the Modern Sciences
From the mind-body problem we now move on to the “hard problem of consciousness”. This issue changes the question to ask how we experience mental perceptions (sometimes called qualia or percepts) in combination with externally observable brain functions. It is not necessary to assume that consciousness arises from these activities in order to contemplate the hard problem because it is focused on correlation and not cause, and so it avoids all of the so-called metaphysical questions that bogged-down progress in exploration of the mind-body issue. This change in approach was extremely helpful as it relates to medical advances and understanding the physical nature of the brain, but it denied the obviously subjective nature of the conscious experience.
Not all scientific academics could be persuaded to ignore the less objective aspects of the mind, and so psychology arose as a field of study in direct response to this increasingly detached take on consciousness. Psychologists accept the existence of mental constructs that can only be directly observed by the person experiencing them. This widened perspective has led to the creation of many theories of consciousness, some of which have more merit than others. The hard problem has not been ignored but it has been re-framed so that it can again be examined from the perspective of the experiencer, which is necessary for us to continue exploring how our personal experiences shape our individual interpretations of “reality”.
Predictably, psychology remains the most fruitful subject among the sciences for learning about the mind and consciousness, though new insights have been emerging from what may be the most unlikely of fields. Physics hasn’t had much of an impact on the study of consciousness since the focus fell upon the brain, aside from electrical considerations related to neural activities. Even then, our knowledge of the impact of physical laws on conscious experience could be considered limited at best. Lately, however, people have begun to recognize important questions about consciousness and the mind that have developed from the equally mysterious study of quantum physics.
Quickly explained, quantum theories are based on the fact that physics is completely different when examined at a scale that is indescribably small. Critics would immediately point out that, as far as we can tell, consciousness of any type only appears at sizes far larger than those required for quantum rules to apply. I don’t agree with this view because I don’t believe that we know nearly enough about consciousness or quantum effects on humans to rule anything out. One of the more intriguing characteristics of the universe at the quantum scale is that time as we know it ceases to exist. This matches up nicely with the idea of a singular moment that can be experienced through mindfulness. Perhaps the mindful state is a quantum expression of consciousness (just brainstorming here). Along with Eastern perspectives and psychological findings, quantum theories may provide us with the tools needed to better understand consciousness in the future. Check out a book called The Quantum and the Lotus for an in-depth discussion of how some of these ideas interact.
Ricard, M., & Thuan, T. X. (2009). The Quantum and the Lotus: A journey to the frontiers where science and Buddhism meet. Broadway Books.