First published in June 2015
At this year’s conference I’ll be moderating a discussion between Bernardo Kastrup and physicist Christopher Fields. I was motivated to write this essay by some correspondence with Bernardo after my interview with him on Buddha at the Gas Pump. He and I were working from the assumption, certainly open to debate, that everything is consciousness – manifest creation being an excitation of that underlying field. We were discussing whether inanimate objects can be conscious.
Advaita means “not two”. Advaita Vedanta is not just saying that at some deep, fundamental level everything is unified while the surface level is diverse. It’s saying that there is one unified Reality, and that all apparent diversity is nothing other than the One appearing as the many while actually remaining One. For example, right now we may feel that we’re looking at our computer monitors, but if there’s only Oneness, then the observer, process of observation, and observed must all be the same thing assuming those different functions while remaining Oneness. For the purposes of this essay, we’ll use the term consciousness to refer to this Oneness, although terms such as pure existence, God, Brahman, Unified Field, vacuum state, etc. might also suffice.
If there is nothing but consciousness, then there can’t be anything other than consciousness which would cause consciousness to appear as limited forms. Somehow, consciousness must do this to itself. Bernardo uses the analogy of a whirlpool, which seems to have a form, but is nothing but water interacting with itself. Physics speaks of the Unified Field as having a self-interacting nature, similarly explaining that at that level, there is nothing other than itself with which it could interact.
If consciousness “creates” the “material” universe through self-interaction, how is it that the various forms which consciousness appears to assume seem to lose sight of their essential nature? If there is nothing but consciousness, is consciousness somehow hiding its true nature from itself? In Vedic terminology, this hiding quality emerges as a natural consequence of the self-interacting dynamics of consciousness. Being conscious, and having nothing other than itself of which to be conscious, consciousness becomes aware of itself and in so doing, seemingly diversifies into observer (rishi), process of observation (devata), and observed (chhandas). I say “seemingly” because as Ramana Maharshi and others have pointed out, diversification only appears to take place. It doesn’t actually do so. The rope never really becomes a snake.
It seems to me that the hiding quality of consciousness is essential to there being a manifest universe, or appearing to be one. If every bit of creation were fully aware of its true nature as consciousness from the outset, there would be no possibility of or need for manifestation, no evolution of increasingly complex forms, no fun game of hide and seek which God is playing with Himself! Once the illusion is seen through, the game is over. More than one sage has uttered statements such as “The universe never manifested” or “Nothing ever happened”.
All this talk of consciousness as the sole reality and forms as mere appearance is not meant to imply that we should dismiss our activities and relationships as illusory. Contemporary spirituality is now recovering from a tendency to do that. Many of those who took refuge in the intellectual notion that they were “not a person” and that there is “nothing to do” lost interest in life, and in some cases suffered dissociative breakdowns. The current emphasis on “embodiment” is an attempt to counteract this. With that caveat, I’ll return to my theme.
If everything is consciousness, does it follow that everything is conscious? If so, to what degree? Have material forms entirely lost sight of their essential nature, or do they all retain at least a glimmer of it? There’s a Sufi saying: “God sleeps in the rock, dreams in the plant, stirs in the animal, and awakens in man.” A rock is as much in consciousness and consciousness in it as is a human being. But rocks do not appear to be conscious in any meaningful sense. Yet at the atomic and sub-atomic levels, looking at carbon atoms for instance, a rock is indistinguishable from a human being. Some would argue that even at this level, nature is conscious.
Physicist and cosmologist Freeman Dyson writes that, “Matter in quantum mechanics is not an inert substance but an active agent, constantly making choices between alternative possibilities… It appears that mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every electron.”
In 1973, “The Secret Life of Plants” by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird presented research suggesting that plants are sentient beings that feel emotions, prefer classical music to rock and roll, and can respond to the unspoken thoughts of humans hundreds of miles away.
And it is obvious that animals are highly conscious and emotionally sensitive.
These examples suggest that everything is conscious to some degree, but that that degree spans a vast range. The more complex and sophisticated the physical structure, the more fully consciousness can be reflected. We see much more sophisticated, complex structures in living beings than in rocks – structures capable of reflecting consciousness enough to be conscious, conscious that they are conscious, and in the enlightened, conscious that they are consciousness. God sleeps, dreams, and stirs in the rock, the plant, and the animal because they don’t have brains and nervous systems capable of enabling consciousness to be fully awake to Itself. But human beings do.
Analogously, we might take the raw materials from which a radio is made – metal, silicon, glass, plastic, etc., and throw them in a heap on the floor. They won’t function as a radio, yet they will be permeated by the ubiquitous electromagnetic field every bit as much as would a functioning radio capable of interpreting certain frequencies of that field as music.
Similarly, take the elements that comprise a human being and put them in containers on a table. Like everything else, they are universal consciousness appearing as form. But they are not conscious in any significant way. But “assemble” them properly – or let nature do it – since human intelligence is incapable of doing so – and you have a conscious human being.
The raw elements comprising the “unassembled” human being are consciousness appearing as form no less than those in the “assembled” one. It’s just that the properly “assembled” elements form an instrument capable of conscious experience, while the unassembled elements do not.
If the ultimate reality is consciousness, then what instrument could be better suited to investigating it than the human nervous system? It is far more sophisticated than any apparatus humans have been able to devise. The examples of numerous saints and sages have demonstrated that on this planet at least, the human nervous system (including its corresponding subtle bodies) is uniquely capable of enabling consciousness to awaken fully to itself and enjoy functioning as a living reality, completing full circle the purpose for which it originally manifested.