Layers of consciousness

I’ll say at the start that this post is a little ‘heavy’, so if you’re not up to having your mind challenged a bit then you may well be asleep by the third paragraph. However, I do think it’s important and offer it as a reflection in the hope you may find it of some use.

Consciousness in this context refers to our awareness and that upon which it is focussed. The reason for considering this is that it crosses over with things within the path to realisation such as mindfulness and meditation, helping to explain how and why they are useful tools. Let’s take an example to start with:

You’re sitting on your sofa. Your consciousness is focussed not on but through the sensations you’re receiving from two of your primary senses: sight and hearing. You’re awareness is concentrated on a box in the corner of the room that’s emitting light and sound, but you’re not aware of the light and sound per se, rather you’re focussed on the narrative that is being related. It’s a TV drama and so engaged with it are you that when the heroine of the story dies you feel a pang of sadness, moved to an emotion which has been heightened by the accompanying music.

Okay, let’s take a moment to reflect on what’s happening here.  On one level you know the story is not real. It was filmed some time ago and the parts are being played by actors who are, one might assume, still perfectly fit and healthy despite on-screen appearances. It shouldn’t be overlooked that it’s not easy to sit still without thinking and watch a box for two hours, but you’ve been training at this since childhood. It finally might occur that even our senses themselves don’t reveal reality, they merely glimpse aspects of the manifest universe with small time delays too minute for us to detect over normal distances.

In this simple process our consciousness has gone down several layers, through our senses, the object of our senses and the narrative being conveyed by that object, complete with the meaning with which we endow it.

So what is our primary consciousness? Well, we very rarely if ever experience this unless we meditate. But let’s take a moment to wind things back to this state. In meditation – and it takes most of us considerable practice to become fluent at this – we find that we can sit comfortably and after acknowledging the reduced input from the senses we focus the attention lightly until our thoughts settle to silence. We might then achieve a state where we can be purely aware without any object of attention. With further practice and with simply staying with this primary awareness we can find that a lightness and joy fill us that seem beautiful beyond words. We might be lucky enough to reach a state where we have no connection with form or identity and experience a freedom which is profound and surpassingly peaceful. I suggest this unconnected pure awareness is as close to primary consciousness as we can achieve whilst still identified with a sense of personal self i.e. prior to the realisation of no-self.

The point of considering this is not to have this type of meditation as a goal in itself – it’s very pleasant but it’s also passing and we have to get up and get on with our lives at some point. The reason for mentioning it is to recognise that even in normal meditation and everyday mindfulness our consciousness is at the very least aware of our senses, and is therefore already ‘down one layer’ so to speak.

When we then focus through our senses on some external object that is recognised, that’s a second layer and our interpretation of that object in terms of our relationship to it (positive/negative/neutral) is a third layer, at which point we are truly immersed in the manifest universe. By creating a narrative around external conditions and objects we add a further layer and so we become so fully immersed in this world, this life we lead, that we forget our true nature, our primary consciousness.

We can exist for most of our lives in this state of unawareness. Then one day it happens. The bombshell drops. We experience something catastrophic in our lives and the narrative cracks and crumbles. This can be very disorienting for most people and often a time when they will start to ask some deeper questions about the ‘meaning of life’. It becomes apparent for a short while that this narrative like all narratives has a beginning, a middle… and ultimately an end. But what was it all for?

For many, over time the narratives reassert themselves and our consciousness sinks once more into the fourth layer. But it’s not real. It’s all a creation. When we take the time to ‘come up’ a layer or two through meditation, mindfulness or philosophical reflection, we can see this and gain some perspective on it. We’re getting closer to our primary consciousness and the layers below this can more easily be recognised as a step away from it, and in some way we can’t quite put our finger on, not real.

I’m suggesting this as a reflection not to sell you on the idea of meditation as an end in itself but to suggest that there are useful tools such as meditation that can help us to realise how we create our reality and become players in our creation, often only to surrender our parts upon the death of the physical form.

I’m not asking that you take the notion of layers of consciousness too literally or try to perceive them as discreet ‘things’. However, in reflecting upon this theme you may have the opportunity to ‘weaken’ the belief in the narrative created by consciousness acting through a sense of personal self in the manifest universe. This in turn may help you achieve a little more freedom.

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