Consciousness Rising

It really is "all in the mind"

This is another "work in process." I am exploring more accurate ways of verbalizing that which may ultimately be beyond all words, yet which is so totally familiar.


Where are your thoughts? "In me," is the obvious answer. They are not "out there" in the physical world. They might well originate from brain activity, but for now I'm concerned with where they appear, and that is within me—in my mind.

So what, then, are thoughts made of? They are not material things; they are not made of atoms or anything physical. Yet our thoughts clearly exist.

If you pause for a moment, and notice the thoughts that are passing through your mind, you'll probably find they are composed of words—an internal conversation you are having with yourself—with perhaps some images, memories and feelings.

But the question here is not how they are constructed, as much as what are these sounds, images and feelings made out of?

Because we don't often consider this question we don't have any ready words for the "stuff" from which mental phenomena are made. Perhaps the best we can say is they are made from mind-stuff. That doesn't in itself say much, except to emphasize that they are not made of matter-stuff.

In Sanskrit, the language of Indian philosophy, where these questions have been pondered more deeply, the word chit means "consciousness" in the sense of being aware, and chitta means "of consciousness" and is often translated as "mind-stuff." Thoughts are described as chitta vritti, meaning "the movement, or whirling, of consciousness" So we could say that thoughts are an excitement of chitta, and in that sense are made of consciousness.

But some caution is needed here. First, the word "consciousness" has various meanings and my idea of it may be different from yours. Second, it is a noun, which implies it is some "thing" or object—something that can be known or experienced rather than the essence of all knowing—and as such can carry with it the notion of being some "stuff" or substance, however subtle.

The suffix "-ness" means "the state or quality of" and it is appended to an adjective to create an abstract noun that allows us to talk about that quality in a general way. Happiness is the state of being happy. Softness is the quality of being soft. But neither exists as an independent thing. Similarly there is no such "thing" as consciousness. The word refers to "the state or quality of" being conscious. And of that we cannot doubt. We are conscious of our experiences; they are known. This, by the way, is the original sense of the word "conscious"; it derives from the Latin con-scius, meaning literally "with knowing."

In what follows, I shall use the word "knowing" rather than consciousness, or awareness. Being less common it carries fewer assumptions. It is also closer to our experience, which is of a process rather than a thing.

So we could say that thoughts arise in my field of knowing. They are a modulation of knowing, appearing as the sound of a voice in my mind, the glimpse of a scene from earlier, with perhaps a feeling of attraction or resistance.

A common analogy is that of a wave appearing in an ocean. A wave is just water in motion. We see that movement taking the form of a wave, but the wave does not exist as an independent entity, separate from the water. It is merely the way the movement appears.

Similarly, our thoughts could be considered as waves in the field of knowing. They have no independent existence beyond our knowing of them. They are temporary excitations in the ever-present field of knowing, appearing as words and images, which we call a "thought." In so naming it, we treat it as a "thing" with some form. But in truth there is no thing there, and no real substance to it.

It is worth just closing your eyes for a few moments and observing whatever thoughts may be there—the conversation you may be hearing in your mind, the images you may be seeing, or some felt sense. Notice how they come and go like the waves on an ocean; passing activity in the field of knowing.

An Imagined World

The same is true of any other experience that may appear in your mind. The scenes or sounds that constitute a memory are all "in the mind," and are likewise just modulations in the field of knowing. Similarly when we imagine the future; we may experience images, sounds, smells, tastes or feelings. These too are just arising in me. They are appearing in the same field of knowing in which my thoughts are appearing.

Similarly with our nightly dreams. The scenes we see, the characters we meet, the conversations we have, the feelings that arise, may all seem very real, but they are nothing but passing excitations in our field of knowing.

Anything we imagine is an image in the mind. Indeed, imagination means the making of images—images here used in the broad sense of any mental image, whether it be a visual image, a sound, a smell, touch, taste or sensation. And by "mind" I mean not just the thinking or reasoning mind, as opposed to feeling or intuition, but the ever-changing collection of thoughts, feelings and images appearing in our experience.

It is only a short step to appreciate that the same also applies to our sensory experiences. If you close your eyes and explore your experience of your body, you will find various sensations—some pressure in places, some warmth here, a tingling there, some tension perhaps, or a feeling of presence. These are all appearing in your mind—in your imagination. Taken together, these different sensations are integrated into the experience of having a body. But, like the various experiences themselves, this experience of a body is itself in our imagination, another modulation in our field of knowing.

The same is true of sound. It is easy to appreciate this when imagining some music. That clearly is an experience arising in the mind. Similarly, when we listen to a recording on headphones; the brain may interpret the sound as coming from somewhere outside us, but it actually is just another appearance in our imagination.

There is no essential difference with "live" music. The brain is taking the data relayed to it from the ears, and from that creating the sound of music. This is experienced as coming from an external world beyond the body, but that experience is itself still arising in me, in my field of knowing.

A representation of the world is constructed in our imagination. And, as more sensory information is integrated into this picture, it begins to take on the mantle of an independent reality. We begin to believe that the world arising in our imagination is the world out there—the so-called "real" world.

This is made all the more real as soon as we open our eyes.

Space in the mind

Vision takes us out into the world of an apparent external space that seems to be independently real and composed of matter-stuff. But however much that may seem to be the case, we are forced to accept that our actual visual experience is likewise arising in our field of knowing.

This is where it begins to get mind-bending. We can appreciate that the colors we experience are just appearing in the mind—the light itself is not colored, it is simply energy of varying frequencies, the color we experience coming from the representation of that frequency in the mind—but it is more difficult to appreciate the same is true of the solidity we experience around us. It not only looks solid, we can touch it and feel its solidity, and experience how it impedes our movement. We seem to be experiencing the world directly—overlooking the fact that all we are experiencing, including this solidity, is a representation of the world "out there" that appears in our field of knowing.

Even more challenging is the fact that the space in which these forms exist, from right in front of my nose to the distant skyline, is also an appearance in the mind. Our knowing has taken on the appearance of space, and within this space are placed the images we have made of the world around—the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations that have been constructed. The apparently substantial nature of these forms confirms the assumption that we are directly experiencing an independent reality "out there." But all I ever actually know are the forms my knowing has taken on.

Matter-stuff is nothing but mind-stuff

But wait! I hear you say. There clearly is a very real, solid world out there. When I kick a stone I am coming into contact with the real world. My experience of that contact may be another form in my mind, but it nevertheless argues for a very real world "out there." I would agree. Everything points to there being a world "out there", what the German philosopher Immanual Kant called "the thing-in-itself". However, as he was at pains to point out, we can never know it directly. We can explore our experience of it, and from that draw inferences or conclusions about it—which is what the scientific approach aims to do—but all that we discover, all that we know and understand about the world, is itself another appearance in the mind, another modulation of the field of knowing

Moreover, the deeper science delves into the ultimate nature of the thing-in-itself, the more we find it is nothing like our experience of it. What we thought of as solid matter turns out to be largely empty space, and even so-called elementary particles turn out to have no real substance. As the German physicist Hans-Peter Dürr put it, "Whatever matter is, it is not made of matter." Matter, as we experience it, exists only in the mind. "Matter-stuff" is just another concept, another form of mind-stuff.

Moreover, anything we may say about the world "out there" is another form appearing in the mind. All our ideas about the world—our scientific theories and mathematical equations, our concepts of matter, energy, quarks, strings, particles, waves—they are all appearing in our field of knowing. They are no more substantial than our thoughts.

It is all knowing, knowing itself in form.

The fundamental cognitive dissonance

To recognize this is truly mind blowing. It blows away the assumption that I am directly experiencing the so-called material world. Instead, I stand in awe of how all that I am experiencing, everything I see around me, is all arising in the field of knowing.

To be clear, I am not saying that the "thing-in-itself" is a manifestation of consciousness, as some are wont to claim. But that the material world I know, my entire experience of it—sound, texture, smell, solidity, all its matter-like qualities, and all my knowledge about it—are appearances in the mind.

Realizing this does not change my experience of it. The world still appears as a real solid world that I am directly in touch with. And this is the way it should be. We need to take the representation of the world out there as real, so that we can navigate our way through it. When I reach out my hand to touch something, I need to feel that experience and see it happening before me, to believe I am experiencing it directly. It is essential to our survival, that we treat the representation as reality.

This is all me

Where am in I all this? We naturally place ourselves at center of our experience, that is somewhere behind the eyes between the ears. That leads most of us feel ourselves to be somewhere in the middle of the head. We assume this is because that is where the brain is. But it has nothing to do with the location of the brain. Imagine your eyes and ears transplanted to your waist. This would now be the central point of your experience, and the place in your experience of the world where you'd feel the observing self to be.

Wherever you may feel yourself to be is but a representation of a self, placed somewhere within your representation of the world. As such it is but another modulation in the field of knowing, another experience that is known.

On the other hand, all experience is, as we have seen, arising in me. It is all a modulation of the field of knowing that I call "I". In this sense, "I" am the knowing in which all this is appearing. My thoughts and feelings, the sounds I hear, the world I see before me, it is all arising from and within my own being.

This is very different from the claim that I am one with everything, which assumes an external reality with which I am identifying, or feel a oneness with. It is not so much that I am one with the world—the physical world I imagine around me—but that the world of my experience is one with me. This is all me!


Last Modified: January 28 2017