This paper was presented at
Psychology: The Indian Contribution
National Conference on
Indian Psychology, Yoga and Consciousness
organised by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research
at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education
Pondicherry, India, 10-13 December 2004

(click to enlarge)

Consciousness and the Self

Dr. Mukesh Srivastava
Associate Professor,
National Law University, Bhopal

"There are no grades of reality. There are grades of experience for the individual but not of reality. Whatever may be the experiences, the experiencer is one and the same." – Shri Ramana Maharshi.

This paper addresses the question which has been at the heart of most of the perennial philosophy as well as the Wisdom Traditions: namely the relationship between the individual 'ego' or self and Consciousness. Is consciousness a mere function or an attribute of the individual mind? Does it arise from a materialist process of the production of thought? How is Consciousness linked, or not linked, with temporality, a sequence of time events, the beginning, middle and the end of a series of thought and action? Who generates and/or controls Consciousness, and further, can it ever be 'known' or constituted as an 'object' of investigation ? It is pertinent to raise these issues away from the context of perennial philosophy and Wisdom traditions, and resituate them in the light of our contemporary concerns of a post-modern psychology, philosophy and new-age science, because, in my understanding, these new currents of thought and interpretation launched under a more general dispensation of "theory" can not either escape or circumvent the most fundamental and all important issue of Consciousness. Rather, on the other hand, I would submit that 'theory' of our times, when taken to the limits of its own epistemological constructions, and faces self- reflexively the core of its own ontological selfhood, may actually open up a whole new field of understanding of Consciousness which was traditionally only the domain of Yoga, eastern meditations, or more generally spiritual methods of inquiry.

In what follows we shall explore the issue of Consciousness under the following heads:

  1. Confusions about the nature of 'self' or where the observer is the observed.
  2. 'Temporality' and levels of mind.
  3. Consciousness and Brain cells.

1.One can read numerous psychology texts and not find any that treat awareness as a phenomenon in its own right, something distinct from the contents of consciousness. Nor do their authors recognize the identity of 'I" and Consciousness. To the contrary, the phenomenon of Consciousness is usually confused with one type of content or another. William James made this mistake in his classic, Principles of Psychology. When he introspects on the core 'self of all other selves' he ends up equating the core self with 'a feeling of bodily activities…' concluding that our experience of the 'I', the subjective self, is really our experience of the body:

…the body, and the central adjustments which accompany the act of thinking in the head. These are the real nucleus of our personal identity, and it is their actual existence, realized as a solid, present fact, which makes us say 'as sure as I exist' (James, 1950).

To the contrary, I would say that I am sure I exist because my core 'I' is pure Consciousness itself, my ground of being. It is that Consciousness that is the 'self of all other selves'. Bodily feelings are observed: 'I' is the observer, not the observed.

Beginning with behavioural psychology and continuing through our preoccupation with artificial intelligence, parallel distributed processing, and neural networks, the topic of Consciousness per se has received relatively little attention. When the topic does come up, Consciousness in the sense of pure awareness is invariably confused with one type of content or the other.

We see the same problem arising in philosophy. After Husserl, nearly all modern Western Philosophical approaches to the nature of mind and its relation to the body fail to recognize that introspection reveals 'I' to be identical to Consciousness. Furthermore, most philosophers do not recognize Consciousness as existing in its own right, different from contents. Owen Flanagan, a Philosopher who has written extensively on Consciousness, sides with James and speaks of 'the illusion of the minds' "I" (Flanagan, 1992). C.O. Evans starts out recognizing the importance of the distinction between the observer and the observed, 'the subjective self', but then retreats to the position that Consciousness is un-projected awareness, the amorphous experience of background content (Evans, 1970). However, the background is composed of elements to which we can shift attention. It is what Freud called the preconscious. 'I/ Consciousness has no elements, no features. It is not a matter of a searchlight illuminating one element while the rest is dark—it has to do with the nature of light itself.

In contrast, certain Eastern philosophies based on introspective meditation emphasize the distinction between Consciousness and contents. Thus, Hindu Samkhya Philosophy differentiates purusa, the witness self, from everything else, from all the experience constituting the world, whether they be thoughts, images, sensations, emotions or dreams. A classic expression of this view is given by Patanjali:

Of the one who has the pure discernment between sattva
(the most subtle aspect of the world of emergence)
and pursua (the non emergent pure seer)
there is sovereignty over all and knowledge of all. [Patanjali Yoga Sutra]

Eastern mystical traditions use meditation practice to experience the difference between mental activities and the self that observes. For example, the celebrated Yogi, Ramana Maharshi, prescribed the exercise of "Who am I?' to demonstrate that the self that observes is not an object; it does not belong to the domains of thinking, feeling, or action (Osborne, 1954); 'If I lost my arm, I would still exist. Therefore, I am not my arm. If I could not hear, I would still exist. Therefore, I am not my hearing.' And so on, discarding all other aspects of the person until finally, "I am not this thought' which could lead to a radically different experience of the 'I'. Similarly, in Buddhist vipassana mediator is instructed to simply note whatever arises, letting it come and go. This heightens the distinction between the flow of thoughts and feelings and that which observes.

Attempts to integrate Eastern and Western psychologies can fall prey to the same confusion of "I' and contents, even by those who have practiced Eastern meditation disciplines. Consider the following passage from The Embodied Mind, a text based on experience with mindfulness meditation and correlating Western Psychological science with Buddhist psychology.

…in our search for a self… we found all the various forms in which we can be aware—awareness of seeing and hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, even awareness of our own thought processes. So the only thing we didn't find was a truly existing self or ego. But notice that we did find experience. Indeed, we entered the very eye of the storm of experience, we just simply could discern there no self, no 'I' (Varela et al. 1991).

But when they say, '…. We just simply could discern there no self, no 'I", to what does 'we' refer? Who is looking? Who is discerning?

Knowing by being that which is known is ontologically different from perceptual knowledge. That is why someone might introspect and not see Consciousness or the 'I' concluding that it doesn't exist. But thought experiments and introspective meditation technique are able to extract the one who is looking from what is seen, restoring the missing center.

2.Temporality and Levels of Mind:

In the classical literature of Yoga several layers of the body or 'kosha' have been identified, each of which is said to have a corresponding 'reality' in the external world. These are:

Annamaya Kosha
Pranamaya Kosha
Manomaya Kosha
Vijnanmaya Kosha
Anandamaya Kosha

The Traditional practice of Yoga exhorts one to recognize each one of these levels of body-mind complex and move upwards to 'evolve' from the first level to the last or ultimate through a rigorous practice of introspection and meditation. A careful examination or analysis, however, may reveal how all these 'layers' of mind body complex are projections of temporality – a sense of beginning, middle and end of time put together by thought. Temporality involves a definition of being of self from birth to death, and a trajectory of evolution of mind-body complex from the gross to psychic to subtle to ultimately non-mental level of existence. However, one may simply ask whether in 'search' or consciousness as all pervasive ground of Being, this whole new exercise of 'evolution', which is strongly recommended by integral psychology of today, a necessary pre-requisite? What is that entity which is growing or evolving through time from one 'kosha' to another kosha ? Can it ever be any form of Consciousness? If not, then one is led to conclude that all forms of physical or mental phenomenon, however subtle, and grandiose, are projections of 'ego' or the 'self' that have ultimately no reality of their own, since ego itself, when traced to its ultimate source, disappears altogether. 'Ego' and temporality are always woven together. Neither can exist without the other. Whereas pure Consciousness, as all pervasive ground of Being, is independent of both.

3.Consciousness and Brain Cells.

For many researchers in the area of Cognitive Psychology, Neuro- Biology and Psycho-physics Consciousness is part and parcel of the materiality of the fleeting universe, as an emergent property of material reality and though processes triggered by the human brain. Searle, (Searle 1992) or instance, likens it to liquidity, a property that emerges from the behaviour of water molecules composed of hydrogen and Oxygen—atoms that do not themselves exhibit liquidity. According to him " Consciousness is not a "Stuff", it is a feature or property of the brain in the sense that liquidity is a feature of water".

Similarly Colin Mc Ginn insists that Consciousness is also a finer product of 'thought', produced by the interactions of neurons. However, he admits that the precise mechanism by which a neuron is transformed into Consciousness has yet to be understood. The best that can be said for this kind of materialist interpretation is that the brain is a necessary condition for pure Consciousness. Yet another Neuro Scientist Joseph Le Doux in his recent book Synaptic Self (2002) advances the argument that "you are your synapses". Synapses are the spaces between brain-cells, but are much more. They are the channels of communication between brain-cells, and the means by which most of what the Brain does, is accomplished. According to Le Doux, the sense of the coherent, coordinated unified 'self' is created by the communicative potential of the Synapses and he further says that the trick is to understand how Consciousness as the ultimate ground or observer of all phenomena emerges from synapses.

In contrast to this we have certain models of Consciousness, such as the one proposed by Robert K.C. (Forman 1998) which seems to be absolutely compatible with the description of Atman (spirit) in the Upanishads, or that of the state of liberation in the classical text of Yoga, advanced by Patanjali, or more recently the description of pure Consciousness as the "Self" by Sri Ramana Maharshi. This state can be achieved only by a total emptying of the contents of the mind: thoughts, sensations, emotions, memory, as well as the coordinated control of the unifying agent called 'me' or 'I'. He suggests further that Consciousness should not be thought of as an epiphenomenona of perception, an evaluative mechanism, or an arbiter of perceptual functions. It exists just as it is: independent of any other thing of phenomenon.

The experience of Consciousness may often give rise to a sense of being expanded beyond the borders of one's own body… and an active inner experience of being a part of much larger field that traverses in and out of the body, which is limitless and all pervasive: a field that transcends the body and yet somehow also interacts with it.

This 'mystical' phenomenon tends to confirm William James' Hypothesis in his monumental Principles of Psychology that fundamental awareness per se, not awareness of anything, is, field-like. The most unusual suggestion here is not there is a ghost in the machine, but rather that there is a ghost in and beyond the machine. And it is not a ghost that thinks, but a ghost for which there is thinking and perception. The experience of Consciousness as some sort of field allows for the hypothesis that it certainly is more than the product of the materialistic interactions of brain cells. The vast, expanding and continuously dynamic field that can swallow within its hold the most distant stars as well as the minutest blade of grass and insect upon it, would certainly seem to transcend individual brain-cells and the human brain. The recorded experience of Mystics all over the world—a cross languages, cultures, nations, time periods and religious or theological orientations, across the Sufi, Zen, Hindu, Buddhist and the Christian mystic traditions of the world—confirm this kind of understanding, though the description sometimes might seem to be coloured by a particular emphasis. Therefore, one is persuaded to look afresh at the role played by our physical body that encloses the brain. Brain-cells, it would appear, may receive, guide, arbitrate or canalize a most fundamental pure Consciousness which is both immanent and transcendent to them. The experience of this vast emptiness as a 'field' that interpenetrates and connects both the 'self' and the 'world' into a timeless and spaceless, still and yet eternally dynamic entity defies all theorization and linguistic representation. This may seem like strikingly parallel to the phenomenon of the energy field in quantum physics, or the vacuum field which is said to reside at the heart of all matter, yet both of which are equally immanent within and transcendent to any particular expression, as has been pointed out by several outstanding physicists of our times, F. Capra, Lawrence Domash and David Bohm included.


The search for 'hard' evidence as often demanded in exact science does not apply to the field of Phenomenology in quite the same way. Of course, there is enough 'evidence' already available for those willing to investigate, but the quality and range of evidence in the field of Consciousness transcends the already existing categories of evidence admissible in the hard sciences which are based on a fundamental duality between the observer and the observed.