Consciousness and the Human Self

(a "first person" account)

"I experience, therefor, I am."

I am because . . . I am. I experience it. It is obviously and apparently so. It is the simple truth. It is a known truth. It is real. It is reality. I just am. I know it. My conscious awareness tells me so directly . . . . . at any moment of the present that I am alive and up and about on the face of this Earth . . . . . and, remember to notice in my experience of it that it is so. Here I am. I am here now. I am.

The true "I am" is not the "I am" of "I think, therefor I am." Nor of "I have emotional feelings therefor I am," Nor of "I have ego and desires therefor I am." Nor of "I have a personality that manipulates and defends, therefor I am." The true "I am" is simply the conscious experiences of all of these human functions that one can have of one's own "self." The true "I am" is the "I am" of "I experience, therefor, I am."

I can experience my thinking when it's going on, therefor I am. The thinking is just one of my functions, among the other functions, like emotional feelings, ego drives, behavior. Experience is not a function of a human, it is the quintessence of humanness that we are born with, that which underlies the functions that we acquire as we grow and develop.

When it comes to "humanness," experience is a given. It starts with experience. It doesn't start with thinking. Babies, when they are born, aren't capable of doing any thinking at all--at least, no conceptual thinking. They have no words for it. They can't describe concepts about life. They have no rules, theories, beliefs, opinions, fantasies. They are just busy living in life, instead, experiencing. The rest of being human all comes forth after that. Experience is a priori.

Experience is basic. Except as in a coma, or during nighttime sleep, where one is still a living human, one is not fully a living human except as he or she "awakens" and experiences. This human may not think, may not feel, may not want, or act in any way in a given moment. Yet, if it awakens and experiences, it's basic humanness is being manifest.

But humans are not usually trained to be able to look at themselves this experiential way. No matter how great and broad their education, or mighty their professional attainments, this perspective is a total enigma to humans who are only familiar with the "ordinary consciousness" of everyday life. The experiential way is a "transcendental" perspective. It transcends the life that one is caught up in, to achieve a position where it can look this life-that-one-is-caught-up-in over . . . . . from its own experiential perspective.

In the ordinary consciousness that people enjoy, "I think, therefor I am," seems like a very reasonable explanation. Indeed we all think; everybody knows that. We rely on our thinking and we trust our thinking. We always talk about our thinking.

But what may be new to people is that we can learn, through practicing simple techniques and methods, to watch our own thinking, and see it simply as thinking--as it is happening--noticing and even studying and reflecting upon the content of that thinking in calm, objective, clarity, as it is going on.

If a person learns and practices such an exercise, they are then in the interesting position of seeing their own mind examining their own mind. They are in an objective posture that is obvious and apparent, in which "one part of their mind," the observing mind, is able to examine and ponder "another part of their mind," that is, the content of their thinking mind.

They can contemplate: "Oh, here's a rather harsh judgment!" "Aha, this is a fantasy I'm having!" "Wow, look at this projection, when I don't really know!" -- things like these. "It's only thinking!"

When one can see this, one can then ask, "if that part of the mind I am examining like this is my thinking mind, what part of my mind is doing this examining?" And the answer to that is conscious experience.

Conscious experience can examine the thinking mind, the emotions in the body, the impetus and ego drives that propel our bodies, or hold them back, and the specific behaviorisms that we employ in attempting to cope with the world and get what we want or have what we hold dear--observing all this with objective clarity.

One can "know one's self" with conscious experience. It is as if thinking, and all the rest of these parts of the self are put onto the examination table, so to speak, and conscious experience can step back from this table and examine each of these, one at a time, and altogether. It is "the self" that one is looking at here. It is objective reality.

Seeing this does not take away from us what we hold dear. It makes it clearer, and more obvious and apparent. It makes it more realizable.

But, in order to do this, it requires learning a method. This method would have to include techniques and experiential exercises by which a student can learn to practice being the simple conscious experience that is at the heart of all that we are--the conscious experience which is capable of seeing and examining the other parts, or the functions of the human mind, objectively, for what they simply are.

It's only thinking. It's only emotional feelings. It's only ego. It's only personality. And I can dwell here "at home" in my experiences, and see this with interest and enjoyment, and "insights" into the life that is going on, within me and around. This is very practical. And it can be fun.

There are many techniques for seeing this that have been developed over the centuries and millenia in different cultures around the world -- in many spiritual as well as certain secular forms. This type of consciousness training is typified by the mindfulness training that is given in certain Buddhist schools, such as those specializing in teaching Vipassana insight meditation, which is a carrying of the awareness--or conscious experience--of the meditation hall out into the ordinary world of events that lies around.

(An example of this type of approach is described in the work of Dr. Charles T. Tart, which is reported-on in Mindful Awareness Magazine's coverage of the "Tucson I - IV" conferences, "Towards a Science of Consciousness," on this website. When asked if he agreed with the suggestion of Dr. David Chalmers, in his paper on "The Hard Problem," where Dr. Chalmer's said we ought to take conscious experience as basic and fundamental, Dr. Tart said, "Yes."

"I am experience," he said. "I am awareness."

The difficulty encountered by many scientists, neurophysiologists, psychologists, philosophers, and the others of interdisciplinary specialties who are seeking a unified theory of "the hard problem," is that the individual specialties by which they are approaching this do not include a method by which it can be seen that the understanding of the full human spectrum of consciousness must take into account the basic conscious experience that is discussed here as a separate consciousness than that with which they ordinarily undertake their work.

There are two forms of consciousness that have to be taken into consideration here in order to understand consciousness, and not just the one form that science takes for granted is the only form (simply because they have not been trained, or not chosen to be trained, in recognizing that there is this other form). There is the form that can be called "ordinary consciousness," and the form that can be called "unordinary consciousness," or "transcendental consciousness." If we would choose a term that is actually metaphorical of the experience for this, it could be: "awakened consciousness," or, simply, "awareness."

The whole society of humans dwells in ordinary consciousness. It is a part of "the ordinary human condition." This includes scientists by and large, and those very scientists (most of them that is) who are attempting to solve "the hard problem." Yet, anyone who takes appropriate training can learn to wake up in awareness and see this.

Learning this awareness can serve these scientists in many ways. First, it can surprise them into realizing that they hadn't realized that there is this other dimension of consciousness, as well as the "ordinary consciousness," which they had taken for granted as the sole object of their research and study.

Secondly, this conscious awareness itself (in contrast with the ordinary consciousness), is a scientific tool of its own, by which the make-up of the human mind can be examined directly, and human consciousness--how it works and what it does--can be examined at leisure, and clearly understood--"with absolute certainty," as Edmund Husserl once put it, in describing his transcendental phenomenology approach as a philosophy.

Without taking into account this tool--referred to hereafter in this series of papers as simply, "awareness"--science is attempting to understand a misleading view of what consciousness is, and depriving itself of the one tool than can actually make that task possible.

Humans dwell in their thinking minds much of the time--and in their basic experiencing, very seldom. Dwelling in the ordinary state of consciousness can be referred to as dwelling in the thinking mind, because whatever one experiences of the world is immediately transformed, right on the spot, into thinking about it.

It is as if the ordinary human withdraws from the world of reality pre-emptively, after barely making contact, as if it were something too awesome to behold. But it is not. The world of reality is very beautiful. It is just that we miss out on deep experience of this natural wonder, because we go into thinking about it so quickly, instead. Awareness is lingering in the direct sensory experiencing of it for awhile longer without thinking about it yet.

Remember, thinking is only about the world. To get to the reality of the world you cannot go through thinking. You can only go through experiencing, directly. This simple experiencing happens with the five ordinary senses--sight, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling touch.

But even these are "dimmed out" in our ordinary human consciousness. We start experiencing with these five senses, but then, almost immediately, we go into thinking about it. And the five senses, although vaguely there (in the background, you might say) are dimmed out, and nearly forgotten about.

This awareness, this core "conscious experience" that we are speaking of here, is a tool for immediately brightening up these five senses again, so one can "see," as they say. But this core conscious experience is not accessible to us in ordinary consciousness, because ordinary consciousness is so taken up with our thinking about it.

It is this thinking about it this way that creates "the veil" that is spoken of in mystical writings, "the illusion." It is this thinking about it that dims our five senses, and holds us in a "kind of trance," you could say, in which we completely forget that our five senses are dimmed down and that we are "lost" in our thinking, instead of "seeing."

If science will attempt to explain human consciousness from the side that is thinking about it only, then it will not have included into its final equations this experiencing of it directly, that is so germaine to "the hard problem."

Even most of the attempts to explain "experience" so far in scientific terms, have only been looking at "ordinary experience." And ordinary experience usually means only touching on the world, tentatively and briefly, without getting into sharp, clear focus, as one may do in this conscious state of awareness that is being described--where the sharp detail of what one looks upon "comes up vividly into high relief." Ordinary experience is just like glancing at things and knowing vaguely that they are there. Awareness is like calmly focusing on things, and having them brighten and become clarified--actually experiencing things. This latter doesn't take any longer than the former. It just takes training. Experiencing can go on simultaneously. And one can look at the whole of life in this experiential way, whenever one remembers to do so.

The free lessons in the kindergarten at this site will show you how.

To Access Foyer | Mindful Awareness Magazine No. 3 cover page
Campus Forum to comment on this article.

October 1998 Makahiki issue of Mindful Awareness Magazine
Copyright: Teaching Tools for Mindfulness Training
July 1998 -- Tucson, Arizona

©1999 Teaching Tools For Mindfulness Training