Where to begin? Are there any beginnings?
So here we are. How's it going? Pretty good? Yeah, same here. Could be better? We're getting there. Suffering through? Aren't we all.
What's good? What do you know? Me? Oh, I don't know, not much. Everything is changing all the time. It's a challenge to keep up.
All I'm really sure of, the only thing I know is true is that I am here now, and I don't know anything else for sure, but I want to.
That, for me, is consciousness. Ignorant, aware, and curious. It is how I have always been: wondering what is all means, delighted by the opportunity to figure it out, and discovering more surprises and mysteries down every promising path.
Everything else I have experienced or have been told is unverifiable, uncertain, or easily upended by a simple question. We'll pass through a lot of that dogma, those illusions, and those delusions throughout our journey together, if you'll continue with me. I promise that this will be a very personal experience for both of us. You will get to know me, and hopefully yourself, more deeply than you know anyone else. By the time we part ways, you will understand why I am so open with you, not having met you before. All in due course.
So, how's your day going? Oh, good. Yeah, me too. When I woke up this morning, I was back in this body. Lots of memories in this body. I awoke in a room I remembered from the night before, the guest room at my sister's place. "Good morning, Sis." Before I woke up there I was navigating a realm of possibilities without this body where the ground didn't push back as much and light bounced more lazily. Things didn't happen in any sort of causal order or abide clocks or calendars.
The situation washed over me. "Yes, I'm up. I'll be ready to go in a few." My parents are traveling to Iowa this morning to look at a potential new house. I volunteered to take care of the dogs and cat and the house they all live in, and the birds that visit the backyard to bathe and frolic and feed. My sister is preparing some tasty, nutritious oatmeal for herself and her husband. She has offered to drop me off at the house before she heads off to her preschool classroom. I set a small intention to rouse my bones without undue delay. We've got love to give today!
I am wearing my Black Milk dragon's egg leggings. They are extremely comfortable, the only clothing I need or want, if weather permits. I am warm and cozy. My head hurts a little as I part my eyelids. I grope around. My phone is dead, or at least non-responsive, as is my watch. It's quiet. It must be early. I flip aside the covers and tumble up to a crouch on the edge of the bed. My hair is long, I notice, as it falls around my fingers as I rub the pain out of my face. My back feels stiff. I reach my arms up over my head, inhaling, interlace my fingers, and stretch to the ceiling. My breath stops as I stretch, then pushes suddenly out of my nose as I release the tension.
I stand up. My legs feel strong, my body feels light. I quietly glide to the kitchen on the pads of my feet where glowing green numbers on the stove read
7:24. Sun beams in through gaps in the curtains. I continue to notice things about myself and the world around me. "Qualia." A word springs to mind. Something about the subjective experience of sensation and perception. That's what all these are, I think, these little noticings. I notice that that thought is somewhat made of words, somewhat not. It's a clear concept, but my mind's voice is just saying "Das." Maybe it's German. I can form the thought into English words as I like, lots of different ways. These are qualia, all these delicate glimpses of reality. These are what quality is made of.
A feeling passes over and through me. A lightness around my eyes, an ease in my chest, a hum around my ears. Happy. I identify this as happiness. Countless other things flit past my mind's eye in a moment. Bits of memories of the previous night and day, glimmers of light reflected off of the things around me, washes of emotion from my ego as it measures me against its expectations, the gentle morning din of the house, tiny pain and pressure signals as my body pops and snaps (more of those every day) back into operation, the amber glow of dawn, and the intentions I have for these next moments. Today I'm gonna get some good writing done. Gonna love every being I come across. Gonna dance a little, eat a little, play a little, keep my whistle wet, and my nose clean.
This is my conscious experience. These are my qualia. I'm honored to share them with you, humbled that you would take a break from your own narrative to take a tumble in mine. What I offer you is bare truth, dry reason, no judgment, open ears, and the love that comes from a lack of desires. I try to offer these things to everyone unequivocally, but my attention is limited. We'll examine and define these limitations when we take a deep dive into the inky well of free will and causality in the material world.
Before we go designing airplanes or learning to fly, let's figure out which way is up. This ought to be fascinating. If it's not, hey, ooh, sparkly…
I trust that you are still conscious. Still with us? Good. Me too.
Okay, so you're conscious, I'm conscious. That's something we share. We share consciousness. We'll return to the sharing part soon enough. For now, I think we can agree that you have consciousness and I have consciousness. I'll not seek to define consciousness for all of us, seeing as it is so personal and subjective. Instead let me describe my experience with consciousness a bit. You can compare your own experience along the way, and hopefully we'll arrive at a common understanding that will be fertile soil for fruitful growth and collaboration.
My consciousness is, at its core, just ignorant potential and awareness. I want to convert its ignorant potential into wise intent (and productive action), so I direct my awareness to and fro and do this or that. Do you find the same to be true of your consciousness? As we continue, I may pause to ask if you share my experiences with consciousness. Or if I forget to, please give yourself some pause and ask yourself. Pause is a precious gift.
As subjective as it is, I can't begin to know how your consciousness works without you telling me, but here's how mine works:
That's the basic process of my subjective experience of reality. Does yours work like that? I keep cycling through that feedback loop, having a grand old time. If this is the basic pattern of consciousness, this must be extremely important! Let's settle on some terminology for this basic process before we go any further.
In any feedback loop, there is data put in and data read out. The input data are what I notice, what I pay attention to. Inside the loop, within my consciousness, I determine the value and meaning of the input data. Then I generate an intention based on that data and past intentions and past data. That intention is then fed back to be manifested in action. I then notice what occurred as a result of or coincidentally with my action and a new loop begins.
There are 86,400 seconds in a 24-hour day. If I am awake here, or conscious of being in this spacetime material reality for two-thirds of each day, that leaves me 57,600 waking seconds. If I take action (which I'd wager is the bottleneck in the loop) every ten waking seconds on average, that means I'm semi-consciously completing this loop nearly six thousand times a day
First, I have attention. I can attend or tend to. My attention breeds awareness: it notices, it observes, it listens, it cares, it organizes, it guides. I can direct my attention inward and outward. My attention seeks an object. When I am the object of my attention, I notice that I am the subject of my attention. I am looking at the eyes in the mirror, but I am not the eyes themselves, and I am not the mirror, nor the image I see in it.
My second ability is intent. I can intend or tend toward. My intent breeds purpose: it means, it aspires, it envisions, it designs, it proposes, it plans. My attention needs an object, a target. I can only attend or tend to something that exists. Whereas I can intend something that does not exist. My intent only needs an aim.
Which brings me to the fundamental property of my consciousness: ignorance. I am here in a world of constant change and impermanence. I want to know why, and how. That is my fundamental motivation. I want to know the Truth, to resolve my ignorance. That's what got me into this mess here, trying to model the intricacies of consciousness with you.
Remind me to get back to the Truth. The Truth is so simple. It's fluid and adamantine and minuscule and gargantuan all at once. It's everything and the only one all at once. It's a drop of the ocean and the whole ocean in a single drop, just like you, just like me. I cannot know the Truth and anything else at the same time. So I know nothing, because I choose the Truth, and am learning to bask joyfully in my ignorance with my attention tuned and the best intent.
I can direct my attention inward or outward, but attention still needs a target. Whether pointed inward or outward, attention gathers data which allow us to resolve our ignorance and assess changes in our quality. Attention is the input of consciousness' feedback loop.
Inward attention observes, and evaluates the quality of, the self. "I am feeling serene and joyful as I write this to you." My mind looks inward as I attend my emotional state. We build knowledge of self by observing ourselves from various perspectives and by noticing ourselves in various states, conditions, and sets of circumstances.
Others that can attend themselves and others—that are able to direct their attention inward and outward, observe themselves and others from various perspectives, and notice themselves and others in various states, conditions, and sets of circumstances—they are conscious beings. Others that cannot attend themselves or others around them are non-conscious objects, whereas others who possess attention but do not use it are still conscious.
Intent drives change. Like attention, we can direct our intent inward or outward, but it needs a specific aim.
Inward intent drives change within oneself. "I am done lying!" My intention is set. Only I will know if I lie. Free will comes with an individual, non-transferrable sense of truth. Others may think I am lying when I am not. My endeavor to speak the truth must start with inward intent. We shape the quality of our being with every intention.
Outward intent drives change in others. "I want everyone to test this theory of everything for themselves!" I am expressing this intention in the words you now read. An intention can remain unexpressed, it only needs an aim. When you hear of intentions, your mind may parrot, as mine does: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." We will come back to aitch-ee-double-hockeysticks, but I can offer a remix with less brimstone: Kept intentions invite oblivion.
For example, if you attend a petri dish through a microscope and observe an amoeba consuming a paramecium, you can posit that the amoeba possesses inward attention (noticing hunger), outward attention (noticing prey), outward intent (intending to grasp), and inward intent (intending to grow). The amoeba is then a conscious being committing evolution to produce some effective behaviors guided by attention and driven by intention. As with those lacking attention, others that cannot intend changes for themselves or others are non-conscious.
If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, it makes the sound it intended to make. Every drop of water and molecule of soil this tree intently slurped from the ground and channeled up its trunk to its limbs, and branches, and leaves, and every ray of sun it stretched its green intent toward, and every feeling the tree may have experienced (bewilderment in a lightning storm, perhaps), and every sensation and perception the tree experienced as it directed its attention inward and outward formed this very tree into its precise state of being at the moment it falls in the forest with no one around. The sound it makes is a song it took its whole life to write, a song it plays triumphantly with its family and friends who attend its practices as they grow nearby. If that tree happens to be a member of an eighty-thousand year-old clonal colony like Pando in Fishlake National Forest, you can bet that song will be well polished.
Then we come to the wind-carved boulder teetering upon the sawtooth mountain ridge. When it finally slips, and tumbles amok through the scree down the slope into the valley below, does it intend the havoc it wreaks? Did the boulder intend the shape it took? Did it notice the ridge eroding away beneath it or observe the valley below? Did it aim?
You and I are much clearer cases of conscious beings: we each demonstrate attention and intent directed both inward and outward on a daily basis. Without any other information, I know that you are reading this book, which requires inward intent to learn and outward intent to manipulate the book and outward attention to comprehend these words. If I were to witness you smile, or if you send me a message containing an iota of self-expression (a four-eyes emoji?), I can be confident that you are conscious.
How have I demonstrated inward and outward attention and intention to you so far? Am I conscious? Before you answer, we had better discuss the final fundamental component of consciousness, the hamartia that has propelled it to unrivaled greatness: ignorance.