The Alchemy of Consciousness

In the great spiritual and philosophical traditions of both the East and the West, the idea of consciousness spans a vast continuum of human experience, from the profound “no-thing-ness” of deep sleep, to the faint glimmerings of subjective awareness in ordinary sleep, to the subject/object awareness of the so-called waking state, to the cosmic unity (non-duality) or emptiness of ultimate awakening.

For these traditions, the real consciousness, the boundless presence, that is associated with our true nature is an alchemical force that can transform the human organism, opening its various perceptual centers–thought, feeling, and sensation–to new levels of sensitivity and responsiveness. This opening enables us to experience dimensions of reality unavailable to our ordinary awareness. The great traditions tell us that it is only through this higher, more-inclusive consciousness that we can uncover our true potential and destiny as human beings.

Unfortunately, most of us in the West have been educated to believe that consciousness is little more than a mental phenomenon somehow equatable to thought. We have even been taught, especially by some in the scientific community, that since consciousness cannot be studied under a laboratory microscope it must therefore be a product of our imagination. Though few of us take this “reductionism” seriously, the idea of “consciousness as thought” continues to plague society as a whole and has greatly impoverished our understanding of ourselves and others.

The Overall Structure of the Human Brain

To begin a first-hand study of consciousness, it may be helpful to review, if even in an overly simplified way, the overall structure of the human brain. Evidence shows that the human brain is composed of three basic centers or levels. These centers, each functioning as a kind of sub-brain, are interrelated networks of nerve cells, each with its own intelligence and memory storehouse. These centers, which develop at various stages in our early growth, are the inner brain, the middle brain, and the outer brain. The inner brain, or brain stem, handles the visceral, instinctive, and moving functions of the organism. It is the seat of our sensory awareness. The middle brain, or limbic cortex, mediates between our inner and outer worlds by adding emotional content and motivation to our experiences. It is the seat of our values and propels us into action. And the outer brain, or cerebral cortex, allows us to reflect our sensory and emotional experiences to ourselves and to adapt to the changing conditions of the world. It is the seat of our intellect and thought, our potential to gain perspective through a kind of “overview” of what is occurring in our lives and the ability to set aims and goals for the future.

To be fully conscious, to experience the so-called inner and outer worlds as impartially as possible, means to have full, fluid, simultaneous access to all three of these brain centers. For these centers are the instruments of experience and perception in our lives. They are the innate structures through which the raw materials of living take on specific forms and meanings. Everything we are and can become in relation to our sensations, feelings, and thoughts is somehow bound up with the proper functioning and balance of these centers. What’s more, these centers are not just located in our head brain, but are distributed and linked throughout our entire body, even in our belly and heart, as ancient traditions such as Taoism and the latest discoveries in neurobiology and other scientific disciplines have shown. It is through a global awareness of the whole of ourselves that we can get in touch with these centers and explore their interrelationships.

The Study of Attention

The study of these centers and of consciousness begins with a study of our “attention.” Our attention is the gateway into and out of these instruments of perception. Whether it is mobilized intentionally or accidentally, our attention is the thread of immediate awareness that connects our inner and outer lives. When someone says “pay attention,” for example, it is usually a reminder that we are not in touch with where we are and what we are doing at that moment–that our attention is somewhere else or has vanished altogether. Without attention, without a perceived connection to what is occurring at the moment inside or outside us, we are simply automatons set in motion with little purpose or meaning.

Experiment: Being Attentive to the Inner & Outer

To understand this better, try the following experiment. As you continue reading, allow your attention to take in not only the “outer” words on the page but also the “inner” thoughts and associations they evoke in your mind. For example, something said here may remind you of something that you read or heard recently, or you may have the thought that this is a difficult exercise, and so on. Once your attention can, to some degree, embrace both the words on the page and your associations at the same time, allow it to expand even further to include an overall sensation of your body, as well as any sounds in your immediate environment. What sensations can you experience? Are these sensations pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? Without thinking about these sensations, simply include them in your overall experience of yourself. If you are really adventurous, try including your emotional state as well. Perhaps you find that you are still agitated about something that happened earlier in the day or that you’re feeling very good because of a compliment that someone gave you.

As you experiment in this way with your attention, take note of how easily it gets distracted. If you are very observant, you may see the exact moment when your attention is distracted from this larger perceptual context of your inner life and becomes locked on to (identified with) a particular sensation, thought, or feeling in the form of a memory, a daydream, a mental image, a complaint, a pain, an itch, a sound, and so on.

This experiment shows that, at the very least, consciousness, as manifested through the watchtower of attention, is a kind of impartial, interior illumination that cannot be equated with the functions of thought, feeling, or sensation. Indeed, the experiment shows that consciousness is what makes our experience of these human functions possible at all. We can be more or less conscious of one of these functions by itself, or we can be conscious of them all more or less simultaneously. Consciousness is thus a reality that, at least experientially, has many degrees and levels. The light of consciousness can be turned up high, as it often is in moments of great wonder, joy, or suffering, or it can be turned down low, as it is when we move though our lives mechanically, on automatic pilot.

Most of Us Live on Automatic Pilot

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we live on automatic pilot most of the time. The moment before you tried this experiment, you probably had little contact with your actual sensations and feelings. In fact, you were probably not even aware of the associative ideas and images taking place in your mind. Instead, you were no doubt lost in these associations, with little direct presence of yourself sitting and reading.

Since childhood we have been taught, mostly by example, that losing ourselves in what we experience is not only normal but also desirable. Gurdjieff called this feature of the human psyche “identification.” We glorify this state with words such as enthusiasm or passion. Since everything we do, however, ultimately involves the energies of our whole organism–mental, physical, and emotional–it is clear that conscious action, along with the immediacy of experience that grows out of it, depends on developing or discovering an awareness that is broad enough to take in as much of our inner and outer environment as possible. This awareness has nothing to do with becoming identified with, or passively losing ourselves in, something that interests us and being carried along by it. Rather it is a state of conscious engagement, a state in which we are fully present now (the only time we can be present) to whatever is taking place. This state of conscious engagement sharpens our perceptions and brings clarity to what we do. To reach this awareness, however, requires a deep thirst for understanding, for opening ourselves to who we really are.

Experiment: Catching Yourself in Action

To understand this better, observe yourself several times during the day in the middle of an activity that really interests you. It could be talking to a friend, playing tennis, working with a business associate, washing the dishes, reading a book, taking part in an Internet discussion group, holding your child–whatever you are doing. Without changing anything, simply take note of how much of yourself (and your attention) is involved in what you are doing. Don’t judge what you see. Just observe. Sometimes you’ll feel like you’ve just woken up from a kind of dream. “What? Me? Here? Now?” You’ll actually be aware of yourself, right there where you are, in that situation, functioning in a certain way. Other times, you’ll simply follow what you are doing, without much attention to your own mind or body. At still other moments, you’ll forget about the whole experiment, losing yourself completely in what is going on. See how your attention fluctuates from moment to moment. As you undertake this experiment, try not to judge anything. Just take note of what actually happens.

As you continue this experiment over the course of days and weeks you may begin to see how much of your life goes by mechanically and unconsciously, with little direct experience, and how your attention and consciousness change from moment to moment. This observation will help you look at both yourself and others from a new, more-honest perspective. You will begin to realize that many of the so-called problems of life, including not getting what you think you want, are really problems of insufficient awareness, of not being fully present either to yourself or others. Realizing this is the foundation for any genuine transformation of yourself and society.

Copyright 1995-2015 by Dennis Lewis. This is an edited version of an essay that first appeared in May/June 2009 issue of The Journal of Harmonious Awakening.

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