Consciousness and The Holographic self-identity within the Skull
What are the most important questions in life? What is so fundamental that everything else, all forms of knowledge and understanding, pivot on the answer?
For example, the Buddha’s inquiry (stated one way) was: Can any meaning or value be found in human life that is sufficiently profound to retain its value even in the face of our own mortality? What meaning does not wither, even beyond death? (Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness)
Rita Ghatuurey wrote (and quoted beautifully by Johnny Depp in the movie Don Juan de Marco): “There are only four questions of value in life. What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for, and what is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same: Only love.”
One question that we consider now, arises in the consideration of our own nervous system, our own body-mind and the activities of our “mind’. I offer this question as being of paramount importance to each of us:
Q: Is conscious awareness an epi-phenomenon, an emergent by-product, of the neurological activities of the brain and the nervous system?
Or alternatively, is consciousness, awareness itself, a fundamental prior-existing principle, within which all reality arises?
Could all the limited and relative forms that comprise the universe, including our own body-minds, exist within an underlying self-aware universal field of Consciousness? Because if that is the fundamental truth of the whole universe, then everything else must be considered in that wondrous light.
Everything hinges upon this question. Is it even possible to know the answer to this definitively?
The brain and neuro-biology, scientists proclaim with near universal agreement, that conscious awareness must arise from neurological activities within the brain. Yet no one has been able to offer an explanation for how this could be. They offer only that when the interconnections within the brain become sufficiently complex, that what is called consciousness, including self-awareness, seems to arise spontaneously. Yet when closely examined, all admit that it is not at all understood nor explained by any known mechanism. It is a problem for them.
Well the great tantric meditation masters, particularly of the Shaiva traditions of Kashmir that we study, have intuited and “seen”, fully realized within the experience of their own deep introversive meditation, the direct personal experiential knowledge that Awareness is the ground-of-being of the entire manifest universe. All arises within and is composed of nothing else but the vibratory forms, the crystallized thickened condensates of Consciousness alone. That is the fundamental underlying the “radical non-dualism” of Shaiva-Tantra. (As it is also for the tradition of Advaita Vedanta. Advaita meaning “not-two”.)
Ksemaraja, a great teacher of the Shaiva-Tantra over 1000 years ago, formulated 20 aphorisms, or sutras, summarizing the teachings in a simple direct articulation. In his Pratyabijña Hridayam (The Heart of Teachings on the Recognition of the Divine), in the very first sutra declares: “Citih Svatantra Vishva-Siddhi-Hetuh”.
“Awareness, independent and free, is the cause of the performance of everything.”
The first time I was taught this sutra, I found it to be the most radical, revolutionary and profound realization ever articulated. This single principle, eventually resonated so deeply within me as being a fundamental truth, that it transformed and brought into crystal clarity the very nature of life, of the universe, and of my own self.
(This fundamental understanding, and its myriad implications, are articulated and expounded in so many beautiful teachings, in many ways and from various viewpoints, in various texts of the Shaiva-tantra tradition.)
Furthermore, the direct personal living experience and realization of this truth is available to all persons today, as ever, within their own living laboratory of exploration into the essence nature of reality. This is done via the properly learned and cultivated practice of deep authentic meditation, that was developed in this tradition and today we call, Neelakantha Meditation.
Yet I find that it is also possible to see the truth of this core principle even in the field of outer human knowledge and logical consideration. Perhaps a truth in the absolute realm is mirrored as truth in even relative areas of knowledge. So let us now consider the operations of the marvelously complex human brain and nervous system.
Imagine a mirror with near-magical qualities. Not only can this mirror reflect back light and color to our eyes to see reflected images of whatever is place in front of it (including our own body and face). But consider a mirror that could also reflect the other senses: It could reflect sound, touch, taste and fragrance as well as visual form! And further this mirror can assemble the reflection into a 3 dimensional virtual-reality that we can move through and interact with any reflected objects in our physical and even emotional environment.
The “Mirror” of Consciousness is a very old teaching metaphor. (A “nyaya” is a teaching principle, a corollary or metaphor, used in the the yogic and tantric traditions to facilitate understanding.) Tantra as well as the prior teachings of Yoga offered that the experience of lived relative reality, including what we see as “nature” or the universe, is a reflected image presented to us in “the sky of Consciousness”. And as it says in the texts: “The Moon reflected upon the waters is not the actual moon.” Pointing to the underlying principle that Consciousness is the fundamental reality.
Here I am proposing that the brain can also be seen as a “mirroring mechanism” reflecting our present outer reality, and all of our past remembered experiences, into the arena of thought. This we call “the mind”.
In Sanskrit, a mirror of any kind is called “darpana”. It can refer to the reflection of the moon or mountain on the surface of water. Of a reflecting surface of a metal surface, or of a crystal. It also refers to the reflective nature of consciousness, in the teachings of yoga and tantra.
This can be a difficult concept to visualize. How does the field of Consciousness itself become expressed and perceived as the experienced reality? The macro-cosmic teaching is that the entire manifest universe, within which all physical and even subtle relative existence, is a crystallization or condensation of Consciousness itself. The existing world is a reflection within and composed only of that formless mysterious Absolute.
In the masterful text of Shaivism, The Tantrāloka of Abhinava Gupta teaches in the 3rd chapter:
“Thus, this entire cosmic existence, (the) total universe, is a reflection in the pure Sky of Consciousness of Lord Bhairava without the intervention, support or assistance of anything else whatsoever.” (Ahn. III verse 65) “Bhairava” is one of the many names for Śhiva in this tradition. Shiva represents the Absolute Consciousness in its full essence-nature, rather than just the mythologic deity form to which it is connected.
Well, on a human scale, we have our own micro-cosmic mirroring mechanism. So that we can now consider the nature of living in a “reflection” of the world around us:
The neurological mechanisms of the brain assemble and correlate the sensory streams, and compute patterns of trillions of correlations from the synaptic connections between cortical neurons. The emotional and feeling component provides additional layers of coloring to experience, including bodily response to the concepts and assembled images. Memory provides temporal reference from our past, influencing how they are valued and assessed.
Inside of our skulls, where physical light has never penetrated, our some 86 billion neurons are constantly performing this amazing feat. They are assembling all of our neurological inputs into a coherent representation, a holographic, almost real-time, sense of our living physical self. (Of these, about 16 billion are cortical neurons. These have synaptic connections with each other forming a neural network with hundreds of trillions of connections! It is about on the same order of interconnections as the entire internet with all computers connected to it. And all within a single human skull!)
The sensory streams interact and receive neural encoded inputs from the manifest physical world: Light is encoded in retinal receptors, rods and cones. Color, light, contrast, shape, form and movement are translated into patterns of optical neuron firings. Sound waves are encoded in the cochlea hair cells of the inner ear and then activate patterns of auditory neurons. Taste receptors on the tongue encode chemical aspects of foods. And olfactory receptors recognize the molecular vibration patterns of molecules entering the nose. A variety of touch senses create patterns of neuron activations for pressure, temperature, and pain throughout the body.
Internal additional senses gather information about muscle tensions, position of joints, our orientation to gravity, and changes in motion or acceleration, etc. (Yes, there are actually more than the 5 main senses.) All of this information is “digital”. Neurons either “fire” or they do not. They have no other language.
All of these input patterns are modulated and catalogued and compared to our past experiences and memory banks. Conceptual identities are imposed upon recognized patterns in accordance with our expectations. That chair is the chair. That cat is the cat. A coherent self-narrative is assembled, colored and interpreted.
All of this happens in the present moment in our brains. The sense of self-identity, our perceived image of ourself and our relation to the physical world, is constructed from the neurological inputs.
This sense-of-self is stamped with an idea of persistence through time: Memory traces of past experience create the personal history: the perceived “past”. Relationships between actions are correlated with experience and allows fabricated expectations of future possibilities to be considered. What might happen? What if? This is called imagination, predictive or even creative thinking.
This is all a “virtual reality” experience inside our own skulls, in the network of neurologic representations. Fundamentally, on the physical level, the brain is acting as a 4 dimensional (3D-space, plus time) holographic mirror of the outer world. The world we see and know physically is not the “outer” physical world itself. But this is a marvelous construction formed of concepts and information. We may call this the constructed (or “vikalpa”, meaning conceptual) self-identity. Neurologists and other brain researchers call the mystery of how this neuron activity inside the skull is “assembled” into a coherent and consistent self-identity image that seems to endure through our life as “the great binding-problem of neurology”. How is it all “bound together”, filtered and packaged so seamlessly? This is not fully understood because one region of processing does not know what the other regions and sensory streams are to be providing. Yet it all comes together with a perception of seamless unity. We fill-in the gaps and the blanks.
Ahamkara, in the teachings of yoga, refers to the mind function of the egoic identity-maker: It literally means the “I-Maker”. It provides the intrinsic self-recognition within the neurological assembled-self that includes the constancy of recognition: “This is my experience”. “This is my life and body and mind.” This corresponds to the neurological self-identity within the brain that is an assembled and seemingly enduring sense-of-myself. We could call this the operating-self or conceptual-self. But it is a complex relative structure composed only of correlated and assembled concepts, digitally encoded at the physical level. (The subtle or energetic body may have corresponding forms in terms of vibrational energy patterns, irrespective of physical neurons. But this will not be explored here.)
The ahamkara is then, that which makes possible self-recognition and identity. (“This is me; my experience; my life; my body, etc”.) It is the same function that makes recognition of “other” (objective-reality, “out-there”, you, them, not-me, etc.) This one function of mind, the I-maker, fragments the unity of life, and even the fabric of the universe and of Consciousness, for that matter.
There is no awareness in the neurologic network of activities in the brain. Just inputs, configurations, assembled concepts and ideas, and outputs. Remembered configurations create the perceived “past”. Possible options that might arise or be caused, create a sense of “future”. But this all only happens in the present field of activity inside the skull. The Light of Awareness cannot be accounted for by the neural network, no matter how complicated and inter-connected. Intrinsically, it would be no more “conscious” than the thermostat (which is a very simple computer) in your home. Regardless of the degree of complexity no computer, not even the entire internet, has ever shown the slightest glimmer of self-awareness.
Awareness and the illuminated perception of the contents and forms within the “mind”, what is seen and known, is the sole function of Consciousness Itself! There is no physical (photon) light within the skull. Only the ever-presence of awareness itself, which illuminates everything. And this is always immediately available and present in every moment, in every experience, in every one of us. Awareness is never “not-present” in any experience. Consciousness is self-illuminating. It is the only Light of Awareness that exists. Nothing is seen or known except by Consciousness itself.
“Caitanyam-Atma” declares the 1st of the 9th century Shiva Sutras:
“Consciousness, absolute, independent and free, is the Self. Is our own Highest Self. Is the Universal Self.”
It is the Self, the final and highest identity of each of us, and it is the Self of all existence, one field of living Awareness. It is our true abiding (non-relative) identity. So we call this the Self (capital S). This is the great primary foundational truth upon which all of the Tantric teachings rest.
The only things within the brain and neural network are the encoded representations of the experiences: the present-moment sensory streams and the trace patterns of past experience (whether remembered or forgotten). They are, in every case, conceptual representations and not the thing itself. In Sanskrit these conceptual representations are called vikalpa, which means concepts and the whole process of conceptualization.
Awareness itself, that which is conscious of all and every possible “known object” is itself beyond conceptualization (“nirvikalpa”). It is literally “inconceivable”-not subject to conception. This, for me, is the proof that , conscious awareness, “the Witness”, the knower of all experience, our own true Self, is not a product of the brain, because it cannot itself be reduced to a concept. It eludes every attempt to be seen as an object within consciousness. It remains ever the silent knower of all objects and experiences. Yet it is always available to be directly known by us in meditation, when we “melt” our separative perception into sublime samadhi.
The radically non-dual teachings of Shiva-tantra of Kashmir, some of the greatest meditation masters of all time, declares that the Absolute field of Consciousness itself (which is honored and named as “Shiva”) is the only existing thing or principle that can never be made an “object” within Consciousness. Rather, all objects of experience, from physical material objects to the subtlest of thoughts, are nothing other than vibrational forms arising within, and composed only of, that living, self-aware, bliss-filled operating-force of Consciousness. It is unbounded, never-changing and cannot die. It is this we investigate and open to in our deep meditation practice. And it is marvelous beyond words.