6. The Light of Consciousness

The one "I am" at the heart of all creation,
Thou art the light of life.

Shvetashvatara Upanishad

My studies in experimental psychology had taught me much about neurophysiology, memory, behavior, and perception. Yet, despite all that I was learning about brain function, I was no closer to understanding the nature of consciousness itself. The East, however, appeared to have a lot to say about the subject, and so did many mystics, from around the world. For thousands of years such seekers had focused on the inner realm of the mind, exploring its subtler aspects through direct personal experience.

Believing that such approaches might offer insights unavailable to Western science, I began delving into ancient texts such as The Upanishads, The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, The Cloud of Unknowing, and contemporary writers such as Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Carl Jung, and Christopher Isherwood.

I was fascinated to find that here, as in modern physics, light was a recurrent theme. Consciousness itself was often spoken of in terms of light. The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation spoke of "the self-originated Clear Light, eternally unborn… shining forth within one’s own mind." St. John referred to "the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world."

Those who have awakened to the truth about reality–whom we often call illumined, or enlightened–frequently describe their experiences in terms of light. The sufi Abu 'l-Hosian al-Nuri experienced a light "gleaming in the Unseen… I gazed at it continually, until the time came when I had wholly become that light."

With all your science can you tell how it is, and whence it is, that light comes into the soul?

Henry David Thoreau

And the tenth-century Christian mystic St. Symeon saw: "a light infinite and incomprehensible… one single light… simple, non-composite, timeless, eternal… the source of life."

The more I explored this inner light, the more I saw close parallels with the light of physics. Physical light has no mass, and is not part of the material world. The same is true of consciousness; it is immaterial. Physical light seems to be fundamental to the universe. The light of consciousness is likewise fundamental; without it there would be no experience.

I began to wonder whether there was some deeper significance to these similarities. Were they pointing to a more fundamental connection between the light of the physical world and the light of consciousness? Do physical reality and the reality of the mind share the same common ground–a ground whose essence is light?


It was obvious that I would not answer such questions through mere argument and reason. As both Eastern philosophy and mystical writings make very clear, knowledge of subtler levels of consciousness comes not from reading, or from studying the experiences of others, but from one’s own direct experience. So I began to look into meditation and other spiritual practices.

It happened that several Buddhist teachers and Tibetan lamas, including Trongpe Rinpoche who had recently escaped from the Chinese invasion, were teaching in Cambridge. At that stage in my exploration, Buddhism appealed to me because it was the most non-religious of the Eastern philosophies. It was as much a psychology and a philosophy as a religion. It made a point of not discussing God; its focus was removing the causes of suffering in oneself. So I started attending classes in Buddhist meditation, listening to various teachers, and reading some of the great Buddhist texts.

Several months later, the direction of my inner exploration suddenly changed. Hunting through the esoteric section of my local library for works on consciousness, I noticed a book titled The Science of Being and Art of Living by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi–the Indian teacher who had recently made the headlines when The Beatles renounced their use of drugs in favor of his technique of Transcendental Meditation. I added the book to my pile and took it back to my study, where it sat, unopened, on my desk for two weeks. Finally, little knowing how much my life was about to change, I took a look. Within minutes I was riveted. Maharishi was saying the exact opposite of nearly everything I’d heard or read about meditation, yet he seemed to make perfect sense.

Most of the books I had read on meditation talked about how much effort it took to still the restless mind and achieve a state of deep inner peace and fulfillment. Maharishi looked at the whole matter in a different way. Any concentration, the least bit of trying, even a wanting the mind to settle down, would, he observed, be counter-productive. Any effort would promote mental activity rather than lessening it.

He suggested that the mind was restless because it was seeking something–namely, greater satisfaction and fulfillment. But it was looking for it in the wrong direction, in the world of thinking and sensory experience. All that was needed, he said, was to turn the attention 180 degrees inward and then, applying his technique, encourage the mind to settle down just a little. Being in a slightly quieter state, the mind would taste a little more of the fulfillment it had been seeking. By repeating the practice, it would be spontaneously drawn on to yet quieter and more fulfilling levels of its own accord.

From bliss all beings are born
By bliss they are sustained
And into bliss they again return

Taittiriya Upanishad

Maharishi’s ideas appealed to my scientific mind. They were simple and elegant–almost like a mathematical derivation. But the skeptic in me was not going to take anything on faith. The only way to know how well his technique worked was to try it.

The nearest teacher I could find was in London, so I traveled down from Cambridge each day for a week to take some instruction. It was a little while before I got the practice right, but once I did, I realized Maharishi was correct. The less I tried, the quieter my mind became.

Journey to India

The following summer, I traveled to Lago di Braies, a lake high up in the Italian Alps, for a meditation retreat with Maharishi. I was instantly charmed. With his deep, warm, brown eyes, long flowing black hair and beard, dressed only in a single sheet of white cotton artfully wrapped around his small body and a simple pair of sandals, he looked the classic Indian guru. Bubbling over with joy, he never tired of talking to us novices about finer levels of being and higher states of consciousness. This was not book knowledge, but wisdom that was coming from someone who clearly had direct personal experience of these states. I knew then that I wanted to study further with him.

As soon as I completed my undergraduate degree, I earned some money driving a truck, then set off overland for India. My destination was Rishikesh, an Indian holy town, about 150 miles north of Delhi, at the foot of the Himalayas.

The plains of Northern India do not gradually rise up into mountains, as do the Alps; the landscape looks more like the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. One moment it is flat, the next there is mountain. Rishikesh nestled right where plain became mountain, at the very point where the Ganges tumbled out of its deep Himalayan gorge.

On one side of the river was Rishikesh the bustling market town, its crowded streets a jumble of market stalls, honking cars, bicycle rickshaws, and bony cows. On the other side was Rishikesh the holy town. The atmosphere here was very different. There were no cars for a start. The one bridge across the river–strung high over the mouth of the gorge–was deliberately built too narrow for cars. Along this side of the river, and sprinkled up the jungle hillsides, were all manner of ashrams. Some were austere walled quadrangles lined with simple meditation cells; others gloried in lush gardens, fountains and brightly colored statues of Indian deities. Some were centers for hatha yoga, some for meditation; others were devoted to a particular spiritual teacher or philosophy.

About two miles down river from the bridge was Maharishi’s ashram, the last habitation before the winding track disappeared into the jungle. Perched on a cliff top, a hundred feet above the swirling Ganges, were half-a-dozen bungalows, a meeting hall, dining room, showers, and other facilities providing some basic Western comforts.

Here just over a hundred of us, of all ages, from many countries, had gathered for a teacher training course. Many were like myself, recent graduates looking for deeper intellectual understanding of Maharishi’s teachings as much as for deeper experience of meditation. There were Ph.D.’s in philosophy, medical doctors, and long-term students of theology.

Over the coming weeks we listened to Maharishi expound his philosophy. We asked question after question, virtually interrogating him at times. We wanted to tease out everything, from the finer distinctions of higher states of consciousness and subtle influences of meditation, to the exact meaning of various esoteric concepts. Maharishi’s willingness to share his knowledge never tired. Often, when the day’s program was complete, a few of us would gather in his small sitting room, where we stayed late into the night soaking up yet more of his wisdom.

Pure Consciousness

As well as furthering our understanding of meditation, Maharishi wanted us to have clear experiences of the states of consciousness he was describing. That could only come from prolonged periods of deep meditation. At first we were meditating for three or four hours a day, but as the course progressed, our practice times increased. Six weeks into our three month stay, we were spending most of the day in meditation–and much of the night as well.

Return to the root is called Quietness;
Quietness is called submission to Fate;
What has submitted to Fate has become part of the always-so;
To know the always-so is to be Illumined

Tao Te Ching

During these long meditations, my habitual mental chatter began to fade away. Thoughts about what was going on outside, what time it was, how the meditation was progressing, or what I wanted to say or do later, occupied less and less of my attention. Random memories of the past no longer flitted through my mind. My feelings settled down, and my breath grew so gentle as to virtually disappear. Mental activity became fainter and fainter, until finally my thinking mind fell completely silent. In Maharishi’s terminology, I had transcended (literally "gone beyond") thinking.

Indian teachings call this state samadhi, meaning "still mind." They identify it as a fundamentally different state of consciousness from the three major states we normally experience–waking, dreaming and deep sleep. In waking consciousness we are aware of the world perceived by the senses. In dreaming we are aware of worlds conjured by the imagination. In deep sleep there is no awareness, neither of outer world nor inner world. In samadhi there is awareness, one is wide awake, but now there is no object of awareness. It is pure consciousness–consciousness before it takes on the various forms and qualities of a particular experience.

Yoga is the cessation of the modifications of mindstuff.


In the analogy with a video projector, this fourth state of consciousness corresponds to the projector being on, but without any input, so that only white light falls on the screen. Likewise, in samadhi there is the light of pure consciousness, but nothing else. It is the faculty of consciousness without any content.

The Isha Upanishad, an ancient Indian text, says of this fourth state:

It is not outer awareness,
It is not inner awareness,
Nor is it a suspension of awareness.
It is not knowing
It is not unknowing,
Nor is it knowingness itself.
It can neither be seen nor understood,
It cannot be given boundaries.
It is ineffable and beyond thought.
It is indefinable.
It is known only through becoming it.

Similar descriptions can be found in almost every culture of the world. Here, using remarkably similar terms, is the fifth-century Christian mystic Dionysius:

It is not soul, or mind…
It is not order or greatness or littleness…
It is not immovable nor in motion nor at rest…
Nor does it belong to the category of non-existence,
or to that of existence…
Nor can any affirmation or negation apply to it.

The Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki referred to it as a "state of Absolute Emptiness:"

There is no time, no space, no becoming, no thingness. Pure experience is the mind seeing itself as reflected in itself.… This is possible only when the mind is sunyata [emptiness] itself, that is, when the mind is devoid of all its possible contents except itself.

The Essence of Self

When the mind is devoid of all content, you not only find absolute serenity and peace, you also discover the true nature of the self.

Usually we derive our sense of self from the various things that mark us out as individuals–our bodies and their appearance, our history, our nationality, the roles we play, our work, our social and financial status, what we own, what others think of us, and so on. We also derive an identity from the thoughts and feelings we have, from our beliefs and values, from our creative and intellectual abilities, from our character and personality. These, and many other aspects of our lives, contribute to our sense of who we are.

Such an identity is, however, forever at the mercy of events, forever vulnerable, and forever in need of protection and support. If anything on which our identity depends changes, or threatens to change, our very sense of self is threatened. If someone criticizes us, for example, we may feel far more upset than the criticism warrants, responding in ways that have more to do with defending or reinforcing our damaged self-image than with addressing the criticism itself.

What is this "I"?… You will, on close introspection, find that what you really mean by "I" is the ground-stuff upon which [experiences and memories] are collected.

Erwin Schrödinger

In addition to deriving an identity from how we experience ourselves in the world, we also derive a sense of self from the very fact that we are experiencing. If there is experience, then there must, we assume, be an experiencer; there must be an "I" who is doing the experiencing. It certainly feels that way. Whatever is going on in my mind, there is this sense that I am the subject of it all.

But what exactly is this sense of "I-ness?" I use the word "I" hundreds of times a day without hesitation. I say that I am thinking or seeing something, that I have a feeling or desire, that I know or remember something. It is the most familiar, most intimate, most obvious aspect of myself. I know exactly what I mean by "I." Until, that is, I try to describe it or define it. Then I run into trouble.

Looking for the self is rather like being in a dark room with a flashlight, and then shining it around trying to find the source of the light. All one would find are the various objects in the room that the light falls upon. It is the same when I try to look for the subject of all experience. All I find are the various ideas, images and feelings that the attention falls upon. But these are all objects of experience; they cannot therefore be the subject of the experience.

... if this castle is the soul, there can clearly be no question of our entering it. For we ourselves are the castle: and it would be absurd to tell someone to enter a room when he was in it already!

St. Teresa of Avila

Although the self may never be known as an object of experience, it can be known in another, more intimate and immediate, way. When the mind is silent, when all the thoughts, feelings, perceptions and memories with which we habitually identify have fallen away, then what remains is the essence of self, the pure subject without an object. What we then find is not a sense of "I am this" or "I am that;" but just "I am".

In this state, you know the essence of self, and you know that essence to be pure consciousness. You know this to be your true identity. You are not a being who is conscious. You are consciousness. Period.

This core identity has none of the uniqueness of the individual self, just the opposite–it is the same for all of us. Being beyond all attributes and identifying characteristics, your sense of I-ness is indistinguishable from mine. The light of consciousness shining in you, which you label "I" is the same light that I label "I." In this we are one.

I am the light. And so are you.

I AM You, that part of you who is and knows… that part of you who says I AM and is I AM…
I AM the innermost part of you that sits within, and calmly waits and watches, knowing neither time nor space…
It was I Who directed all your ways, Who inspired all your thoughts and acts…
I have been within always, deep within your heart.

The Impersonal Life, Anon

Beyond Time and Space

This essential self is eternal; it never changes. It is pure consciousness, and pure consciousness is timeless.

Our normal experience of the passing of time is derived from change–the cycle of day and night, the beating of the heart, the passing of thoughts. In deep meditation, when all awareness of things has ceased and the mind is completely still, there is no experience of change, and nothing by which to mark the passing of time. You know you have been sitting there, in absolute stillness, but as to how long you have been there, you have no idea. It could have been a minute, or it could have been an hour. Time as we know it has disappeared. There is simply now, eternal now.

Time and space are but physiological colors which the eye makes, but the Soul is light.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Not only is this essential self beyond time, it also is beyond space.

If we are asked to locate our own consciousness most people sense it to be somewhere in the head. Right now this book probably appears a couple of feet in front of you. Further in front of you may be a table; there may be walls to your side and behind you; there is the ground some feet below you; and your arms, torso, legs and feet are also out there, a little distance from the point of your perceiving self.

It also makes sense that we would feel our consciousness to be somewhere in the head. Our brains are in our heads, and the brain is somehow associated with conscious experience. We would find it strange if the brain was in the head, but our consciousness was in the knees.

But all is not as it seems. The apparent location of your consciousness does not actually have anything to do with the placement of your brain. It depends on the placement of your sense organs.

Your primary senses, your eyes and ears, happen to be in the vicinity of the head. Thus the central point of your perception, the point from which you seem to be experiencing the world, is somewhere behind the eyes and between the ears–somewhere, that is, in the middle of the head. The fact that your brain is also in your head is just a coincidence, as the following simple thought experiment bears out.

Imagine, that your eyes and ears were transplanted to your knees, so that you now observed the world from this new vantage point. Where would you now experience your self to be? In your head? Or down by your knees? Your brain may still be in your head, but not the central point of your perception. You would be looking out onto the world from a different point; you now might well imagine your consciousness to be in your knees.

Our perceiving self is nowhere to be found within the world-picture, because it itself is the world-picture.

Erwin Schrödinger

In short, the impression that your consciousness is located in space is an illusion. Everything you experience is a construct within consciousness. Your sense of being a unique self is merely another construct of the mind. Quite naturally, you place this image of your self at the center of your picture of the world, giving you the sense of being in the world. But the truth is just the opposite. It is all within you.

You have no location in space. Space is in you.

The Universal Light

Again we see close parallels with physical light. The light of physics does not exist in space and time; nor does the light of consciousness.

In physics, light is absolute, not space and time. In the realm of mind, the light of consciousness is absolute, the common ground of all experience, including our experience of space and time.

Both lights are intrinsically unknowable–at least in the way that everything else is known.

Both are invariant. Every photon of light is an identical quantum of action. The same is true of consciousness. The light of consciousness shining in me, is the same light that shines in you.

Those wise ones who see that the consciousness within themselves is the same consciousness within all conscious beings, attain eternal peace.

The Katha Upanishad

These parallels suggest that the physical world and the world of mind share a common ground–a common ground that we experience as light. Monotheistic religions call this common ground God–and, not surprisingly, this God has many of the attributes and qualites of light.

"God is the light, in which there is no darkness," says St John. And in the Koran we find, "God is the light of Heaven and of the Earth."

God is said to be absolute; so is light. God lies beyond the manifest world of matter, shape, and form, beyond both space and time; so does light. God cannot be known directly; nor can light.

God is the source of everything; so is light. Light is the foundation of every action in the universe. And every experience we have is a manifestation of the light of consciousness.

If God is the light–or what lies behind the light–then one manifestation of God is as the light of consciousness shining within every one of us. This realization leads to one of the most contentious and confusing of all mystical assertions–the statement "I am God."

Chapter Seven

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