What Is Consciousness?

I have avoided wading into the thicket of consciousness. We consider it such a central part of our identity, it is astonishing how little we understand it. As far as I can see, consciousness studies are a mess. We can’t even seem to agree on a definition of the word, much less understand how it works or what it is for. But it comes up over and over whenever you want to try to understand why humans behave the way they do. So I am wading in, even though I do not understand consciousness any better than anyone else.

So approach all of this skeptically. For that matter, approach everything skeptically, including your own beliefs and opinions. As we will see as we get into this, we don’t really know much, not even about ourselves. Be very skeptical indeed of anyone who claims to have all of the answers.

The exact nature of consciousness is mysterious. No one has figured it out. Why does the brain create conscious experience at all, and how does it do it? Philosophers and neuroscientists have puzzled over that one for hundreds and thousands of years, and we still do not know. We can’t even agree on a definition. Not all experience is conscious. Most mental activity is unconscious. Most of our true motivations are unconscious. That alone should give us pause, should be grounds for humility. This thing that is our most intimate experience remains beyond the grasp of our understanding. We have different definitions and different opinions and very little common understanding. We do not know ourselves at all. Perhaps we cannot know ourselves. But we act as if we do know. We act out of ignorance as if we have true understanding.

Is Consciousness the Knower or the Known?

I am not an expert on consciousness studies or philosophy, only on my own conscious experience. In other words, no expert at all. But as far as I can see, and from what I have read, confusion reigns over what consciousness is and what it means. Often the word “consciousness” refers to conscious experience, what is sometimes also called “the contents of consciousness” or “qualia.” It refers to those experiences that are known, that are experienced consciously: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, feelings, thoughts, dreams. Unconscious experiences also exist: things that happen, that go on around us, that we never experience consciously. The photons enter the eye, the brain processes the nerve impulses, but it never creates an image that is experienced consciously. Someone speaks, but we don’t hear it. A filter in the brain prevents it from being formed as a conscious experience. Consciousness in this sense is a very limited thing, a small part of the whole operation of the brain. It never has access to the whole truth. Most of reality is unknown, unheard, unseen. Even that which is received by the brain through the sense organs, mostly remains unconscious.

Also mostly unconscious are the actual operations of the brain. Decisions are made based on past experience and past conditioning, the punishments and rewards of our youth, our earliest attempts to survive in a confusing and enigmatic world. The brain forms a simplified model of how the world works, and it moves through the world based on that simplified, often wildly inaccurate, model. This is unconscious action. We have no conscious access to these operations, even though they are the source of most of our behavior. We do not know, can not know, this aspect of ourselves.

Another use of the word “consciousness” refers to a presumed “experiencer” of all experience. This experiencer is mysterious, like the photographer behind a camera. The known lies in front of the lens. What is behind the lens? By this conception of consciousness, cameras without photographers, brains without experiencers, do not create conscious images.

Under this meaning of the word, some entity other than the brain sees every sight and hears every sound and feels every feeling while remaining forever out of view itself. This idea is central to much nondual philosophy. Experiences are bodily but the experiencer is disembodied. Sometimes this entity is supposed to be God. Sometimes it is thought to be a “higher” self. It is often referred to as “pure consciousness”. However it is conceived (and it can only be a matter of speculation since it never reveals itself to itself), it is supernatural and omniscient. Pure consciousness is the only reality, and everything else is an illusion. Spiritual awakening is understood to be the realization of this: The world you apparently experience is a dream. Pure consciousness is who you really are.

So it appears to me that there are two camps on conscious experience: those who believe that consciousness is simply the contents of consciousness, that there is no “experiencer;” and those who believe that consciousness and the contents of consciousness are separate, that there is a non-corporeal experiencer who is experiencing every experience. This experiencer is supernatural, bigger than the self, bigger than the brain, bigger than the mind, bigger than the body, perhaps even as big as God. It remains always out of sight, never knowable, the knower of all that is known.

As far as I can see, and I am ready to be completely wrong about this, consciousness and the contents of consciousness are the same thing. No supernatural conscious entity exists behind everyday, fleeting consciousness. When a sound is heard, the compression of air is processed by an ear and a brain. No one is hearing the sound. When a raven flies by, an eye and a brain create an image of a very mysterious phenomenon. No one is seeing a raven. No one is seeing through these eyes or hearing through these ears. Seeing is happening. Hearing is happening. One particular instance, among the many billions of human and non-human instances, of the universe creating an image of itself. Consciousness is therefore a small thing. An amazing thing, but only a tiny, keyhole expression of reality, and more a veil than a window. Consciousness reveals limited aspects of the world, but it also massively filters most of it.

I can’t locate my self in consciousness any more than I can locate myself in my left hand, which also gets only occasional use. Consciousness makes its claim on our essential identity, because most of us feel pretty strongly that we can lose our left hand with no loss of self (although if we are a professional violinist it will present a real challenge to our sense of identity as well as to our vocation), but we feel we can’t lose consciousness without losing self. But is that so? We lose consciousness every night. Most of our sleeping hours are dreamless and utterly unconscious. But we wake up in the morning with no sense of having not existed. Conscious experience is not what gives us that feeling of existing as a separate and unique entity. I would argue that what does that is the story of the self.

The Story of the Self

There is a third way that “consciousness” is used, and this one lays special claim to our sense of self. It refers to the inner monologue, the stream of sub-vocalized words that we “hear” in our heads, but no one else hears. I often refer to this as “the commentator.” It is like the commentator at a sporting event, constantly referring what is happening to what it knows from memory. It is often judgmental, it is very opinionated, sometimes entertaining, can be extremely annoying, is frequently wrong, and its presence takes attention away from what is happening in the world around us. Many people simultaneously identify with it and make futile attempts to drown it out. Some meditators see silencing the inner commentator as the ultimate goal of meditation. Yet we attach great importance to it. It tells us who we are. Through a series of thoughts, it separates “me” from whatever is being experienced. It locates “me” in memory of the past and in judgment of others. Our sense of self as derived from the commentator is actually quite flexible. It is constantly reinventing itself depending on the circumstances, while managing to give the impression of continuity.

The first few seconds of waking up from deep sleep are a good time to see this self-mechanism kick into gear. The mind starts rehearsing what it knows about who and where it is, and in mere seconds can rebuild its sense of self. But before it gears up, raw experience reigns, without commentary, without reference to self. Self is an activity of the mind. Self is a mind-constructed fiction. It is an activity that explains and makes connections and relies heavily on memory to build a fictional entity called “me.” Our minds love to tell stories, to connect what they know, and explain away what they don’t understand. Loss of “self” is the loss of the ability to tell a coherent story. It isn’t loss of consciousness that kills the sense of self (unless that loss is permanent), it is the loss of episodic memory and the loss of the ability to weave a coherent narrative, to update and reinvent continuously the story of “me” in reference to memory. When the storytelling stops, so does the self.

For all of our great attachment to the story of the self, most of us also experience a kind of ecstasy when the self-story stops and we function with unconscious action, and conscious experience, but no commentator. This is often referred to as “being in the flow.” Actions seem to just happen on their own, although those actions rely heavily on prior practice and muscle training. Musicians and athletes and artists know this state. The commentator shuts up and the basic, unconscious training of the brain kicks in. It feels great. Although we identify with the storyteller, what this tells us is that the storyteller is not running the show. It is not the decider. It is just the commentator. The action is going on out of sight in the unconscious brain. The commentator is merely trying to make sense out of that small portion that appears in conscious experience, and trying to relate it to what resides in memory.

I suppose there is nothing wrong with this, but it is not trivial. The human enterprise is built on a foundation of self-hood as the ultimate reality. Take away the self, and the whole edifice of human civilization collapses. Its reason for being ceases to be. The power and control and exploitation, the endless seeking for self-fulfillment, the fear of the unknown that expresses itself in rigid religious beliefs and unbeliefs of all stripes, all crumble to dust if there is no self. Self-help, self-denial, self-actualization, self-realization, success, status, power, control, all rendered meaningless if there is no self.


There is a fourth use of the word “consciousness” as well. Some people use “consciousness” to refer to self-consciousness, to having a self-image or a self-concept, to being able to distinguish one’s own body from everything else. I think self-consciousness in humans is related to the story of the self, the commentator, but other animals, like chimps and dolphins and whales and seals, also have self-images. They recognize themselves in mirrors. They have or can use names for themselves and for objects in their world. I do not have any idea what it is in the brain that creates that sense of self-existence as distinct from everything else. Memory might play a role. It might have something to do with lateralized brain function. I do not know whether marine mammals and non-human primates have self stories like we have. I tend to doubt it. I think they are self-conscious, and they have conscious experiences, but are they storytellers? I don’t know.

Depending on which definition you are using, “consciousness” is limited to humans, shared by several mammals with complex brains (chimps, dolphins and porpoises, humans, elephants, whales), common to all animals with central nervous systems, or a basic feature of the entire universe. These different aspects of mental function are all referred to as “consciousness” but they are not necessarily linked. It is possible to have conscious experience, but not be self-conscious. It is possible to have conscious experience but not tell a self-story about it. No one can know with any certainty whether or not there is a supernatural experiencer of all experience. What we call “consciousness” is not one thing, but many things, and lumping them together is very confusing.

The Whole Body

We have invested so much of our sense of self in some aspect of consciousness that we balk at the idea that consciousness is a small and relatively unimportant function of the brain. Who am I if not my conscious self? Bodies with brains find satisfaction in a challenging task, in achieving what looked difficult or impossible. Meaning still resides in that. Meaning resides in friends, in good company, in fellowship with plants and animals, in healthy surroundings, in nourishing food, in everything that is full of the vitality of the whole movement of life. That’s life stuff, not self stuff. That’s deriving meaning from participation, not from separation or exclusion or domination. The self is insecure, seeing as how it doesn’t actually exist. So it tends to be pretty territorial. It struggles endlessly to prove its existence through “more and better.” Gotta have more. Gotta be better. Gotta live forever. That is the stuff of the self, trying to prove it exists, when in fact it does not exist.

The self we think we are is ephemeral, existing only as a complex of thought patterns in the mind. We think the real self is the self we imagine ourselves to be, the self that is a spirit housed in this body, but somehow separate from it. We think the body, the natural world, the physical universe, is “other.” We imagine it to be inanimate, unconscious, unimportant. In many of our spiritual and religious traditions, we think the physical world is an illusion, or that it is “fallen” and that our ultimate goal is to escape it or at best redeem it.

We have it backward. Tragically, destructively backward.

We fully inhabit this world. There is no other. This is the only life we will ever have. Our goal is to make of our lives a harmonious counterpoint to the melody of the whole universe. The other animals don’t have to work at this. They do it naturally because, it appears, they have not created self stories that separate them from the whole.

We create self images, and we act as if the image is the real, and the real is the image! Backward! We treat the “self” as if it is the most important thing of all, and the “world” as if it either doesn’t matter or is to be despised or doesn’t exist! We treat other animals as if they have no reality or only exist for our use. We can do whatever we want to them. They can’t feel anything at all. They aren’t even real. We are the only real things. Our disembodied consciousness, our spirit, our self is the only real thing!

Backward. “I” am the one who does not exist. The self image has no reality. The real is all that lives in actuality, beyond all images, beyond all consciousness. The real cannot be known. The known isn’t real. The real cannot be imagined. The image is not real. The mind creates our experience and interpretation of reality, but it does not create reality. Far too often, the mind creates an experience or an interpretation of reality that is wildly out of touch with reality itself.

I think that consciousness has created real problems for us and for the world. Our identification with it to the exclusion of all that lives beyond our conscious experience has caused real problems.

If we could see this, really see the truth of reality’s wholeness and the way the mind creates a fragmented image of it, that would turn our world upside down and inside out. Which is to say that it would reorient us toward reality, putting reality back on its feet. There is no way to see this and not be reconfigured by it, because this error lies at the very heart of our mistaken sense of reality and identity. We believe the unreal self image is separate and ultimately real. We believe the whole of reality is an illusion or at best an unfortunate burden, a temporary prison. Is it any wonder we are making such a mess of the world?