Is everything really consciousness?

consciousness buddha.jpg

Lots of spiritual teachers and teachings seem to be saying all there is is consciousness. But is this really true? And even if it was true, would we be able to know this as being true?

From the point of view of experience

Firstly, from the point of view of our experience, yes, everything is consciousness. Whatever you look at, smell, see, touch, feel, think or imagine, etc, appears within your consciousness or awareness. And all these things appear as modulations of that consciousness, so in effect, our entire experience is nothing but consciousness.

Also we cannot directly know or experience anything or go anywhere that is not within our consciousness. If we did then we would, by definition, be conscious of it, and so our experience of it would be consciousness.

Everywhere we go, no matter what we experience, consciousness is, it is always present, effortlessly shining.

So, there we have it. Everything is consciousness. Right? Well…

From the point of view of reality

Just because everything you experience is consciousness, doesn’t mean that everything is consciousness. You see, in one way this is just a play on words. In the way we are using the words, experience and consciousness are synonyms. You cannot have experience without consciousness. If you are conscious you are experiencing. Think about it. Can you have one without the other? So of course, in terms of experience everything is consciousness. But it’s a bit like saying in terms of vision everything is seeing.

You don’t have to be a genius to realise there may be things going on that we are not conscious of, and perhaps we will never be conscious of. From what we know of the universe (via our consciousness!) we know it is vast and complex. Of course all this vastness could be just all happening within our consciousness only, but we don’t know that for sure. It is easily foreseeable that there may exist something beyond our consciousness, something we can never sense (be conscious of) or understand.

From the point of reality, we do not know if all there is is consciousness, and to say that everything is consciousness is going too far. We can only say everything is consciousness in terms of our own experience, but not in terms of reality. If you think that everything is consciousness (and by implication that nothing exists outside of consciouness), I would say that is a belief. Ask yourself, do you know that for sure? How can you know that for sure?

Why is this important?

Does this actually matter? If all we experience is consciousness, then does it matter? If there is something beyond consciousness but we are not aware of it, who cares, right? Well, to me at least, it does matter. If you are interested in what’s true it does matter. If you are a spiritual seeker trying to figure this all out and it doesn’t make any sense, then it does matter. If you are interested in seeing through all false beliefs and discovering a genuine freedom, then yes, it does matter. And if you are interested in science and reducing human suffering through technology based on scientific discoveries, then yes, it does matter.

False beliefs breed suffering as they inevitability conflict with what is true, and false beliefs impede genuine philosophical, ethical and scientific inquiry. Beliefs like this affect how we approach and respond to life and how we treat each other. It affects the philosophical basis upon which scientific progress is made, and so it can affect the technologies we develop and how we develop them. The overall result of clinging to false beliefs is to the detriment of us as individuals and our society at large.

Does that mean that not everything is consciousness?

So, back to consciousness. Does that mean that not everything is consciousness? No! Perhaps everything is consciousness! Perhaps it isn’t. The point is that we do not know. Everything may or may not be consciousness. We don’t know. It’s actually a scientific question and we don’t have the evidence either way. It may be impossible to know, as how would you know that there is nothing beyond consciousness?

The point is we should be honest, with ourselves and each other, and not cling to beliefs unnecessarily and unknowingly. Whilst beliefs can be used to make us feel better and give us strength during hard times, clinging to them and thinking they are definately true and that we are definately right causes more suffering in the long term, both for us and often for those around us.

What about Freedom?

So if we don’t know whether or not everything is consciousness, what do we do now? A part of Freedom, which is already here, is that everything is allowed. It’s ok to not know. That’s ok. There are lots of things we do not know, many things we will never know, and probably many things that are impossible for us to know. Freedom doesn’t mind. It’s just the way things are.

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19 thoughts on “Is everything really consciousness?

  1. But isn’t it important to stay with our experience. You’re right that we can’t know this for sure. There may be some other funky thing going on that we don’t know about but if this is our experience shouldn’t we stay with this? For me explanations can be quite important but is it actually useful with this. It’s just theorising right?

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    1. If by ‘stay with your experience’ you mean believe everything you see, then no, you should not just trust appearances. You should question your experience and not accept superficial explanations. It’s more important to follow the evidence. Investigate your experience. Does the moon actually change shape? Does the sun really disappear every night? Are there really lots of small people inside TV sets?

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      1. Actually I don’t mean to believe everything I see. At the moment I’m typing on my computer and words are appearing on the screen…..I don’t think the gods of computers are making the words appear. The truth is I don’t know the complexities of how a computer work. I’m slightly interested and know I could probably look into it and find out the answer. That would give me more knowledge and possibly satisfy me for a while. But there would probably be more questions. But for the time being I trust it works. In the same way, my experience at the moment, seems to be that things are appearing in consciousness. I can keep testing my experience to see if it is true, which I have the ability to do. But to check if there’s anything outside consciousness. How would I ever find that out? Am I interested? Possibly but then I go into theories. But can we ever really know? It just created more and more questions….which is frustrating and causes suffering.
        The moon appears to change shape. From where I am positioned on earth the sun disappears every night. And people do appear to be smaller on TV 😉

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  2. I am just another fish swimming in the Stream. We are all in the Stream, we cannot be outside the Stream. In the Stream there is no ahead or behind, no bottom or top, no fast or slow. We all just move with the Stream in the Stream and we are all just where we need to be. Thanks Tom

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  3. Hi friends,
    I think that we could say that everything is Mind, not consciousness. Consciousness is a quality of mind, as are all things, but consciousness is dependant on the observer or the one who is conscious of something and that which is observed or an object. Does this make sense to us all?

    QP

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    1. As far as I can see, you cannot say with certainty that ‘everything is X’. X could be mind or consciousness or matter or energy or whatever…we just don’t know enough to say that with certainty.

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      1. Good day Tom,
        By that argument everything seems to be everything and that is not so helpful to everyone. Most of the wisdom traditions point to mind as the source of the composite world. And in open discussions agreement on terms is important so that we know what each party is saying.
        As for not knowing with certainty, we can have what is called confidence in the great sages of this and former times confidence in their realizations based on many days, months, and years of of meditation. So if we know that we do not understand this in a deep and profound way we have only one choice and that is to follow the examples and “just meditate”.

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      2. Hi quantumpreceptor,

        1. I think it’s demonstrable that ‘most of the wisdom teachings’ do not state mind is the source of the composite world. There are a few notable teachings that do, such as some schools of Tibetan Buddhism and some zen schools, but many of these go to lengths stating that they do not refer to mind as being ‘real’ but it is just a teaching device and they call it ‘mind’ for want of a better word. In Chinese, the word mind can also mean heart, and the Tibetan word Rigpa is often incorrectly translated as mind. Semde, another Tibetan word translated as ‘mind’ refers to consciousness in most cases, and my arguments above cover that. Don’t forget Buddha himself was against any kind of absolutism/idealism, as are most of the Mahayana schools.

        2. Although we can, we do not have to have faith in the ‘great sages’, especially when they all say different things about this issue. Just take vedanta as one example – constant arguments and divergent views about the meaning of the scriptures over hundred’s of years! Same for Buddhism, you can see all the in-fighting in the texts through the ages. And that’s just within traditions. There is even greater arguement between traditions. Many sages, such as Buddha and Swami Vivekananda recommend not having faith in teachers and teachings. Not to say we ignore the teachings or that faith is necessarily bad. We can receive the teachings, ponder them, reflect and investigate for ourselves.

        (By the way, I feel that my teachings actually bridge the gap between various traditions and non-traditions and reveal the unity that lies behind the apparent diversity of teachings, but there you go! 🙂 )

        My key point is that we should not pretend to know something we don’t. Ultimately we have no way of knowing if consciousness or mind or whatever makes up the entire universe, etc, and perhaps will never know.

        Best wishes

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      3. Dear Tom,
        Yes, I understand that not all of the wisdom traditions use the word “mind” but they do have similar ideas. We can call it mind, akasha, or even the Tao that cannot be named, these all speak to the ultimate truth, that which our dualistic words cannot fathom. This was my point, in my humble opinion, consciousness as a word does not fall in my ballpark, but of course, I respect that it might be in yours which explains why I cannot find it. Consciousness does not unite subject, object, and action. Food for thought, the french word Consciencepanoramique is quite interesting.

        Thank you for mentioning the big issue of translation, since the catholic missionaries went to India to convert the “heathens” they were faced with an enormous task to translate a literal mountain of books and writings that may have even surpassed the great wisdom treasures of the west. They found a culture so rich in every way that the only way they could think to better it or persuade others not to check it out was to mistranslate and demonise Hindus Buddhists and Jains as devil worshippers who wanted to meditate themselves into nothingness, nothing could have been further from the truth, for years we were all nihilists. Thankfully to the work of people such as yourself, this is changing. As for Rigpa, I have understood it to be more in the direction of awareness as its dualistic opposite Marigpa is ignorance, and for me, Semde is more in the direction of the continuity of awareness and experiences. These are clearly not a mind that points to the ultimate truth.

        I believe these constant arguments you mentioned to be very beneficial, debate and testing of the different teachings was crucial especially in places such as Nalanda. This is why I am questioning you, as truth is not so easy to find. I agree faith or trust is not nearly as powerful as experience. But one needs the sage or teacher to get us started if not your out of job?
        If the Buddha could realise enlightenment then so can we all. Ultimately we all the ability to know all, not just if consciousness or mind makes up the universe. And the path is meditation and understanding of the teachings, they go hand in hand, and the best way I know of is to dig in one spot, dig deep so to speak and don’t get confused with all the offers our there. Chose one that has meaning to you and go to work.

        Namaste

        QP

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    1. For example, I do not know what your favourite colour is or if you even have a favourite colour. I do not know if consciousness is an emergent phenomenon or if it is more fundamental, or if perhaps there is an entirely different explanation that we haven’t yet come up with. I do not know how many cells are in my body. I don’t know the outcome of a future sporting event. These are examples of ‘known knowns’, ie. things I know I do not know.

      There are also the ‘unknown knowns’, the things I do not know I do not know, which of course I cannot name.

      Lastly it is also entirely possible there are things that may be impossible to know by the human mind/consciousness, things that will forever remain unknown to me.

      Look up ‘Johari’s window’ if you are having trouble with any of this

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  4. Tom wrote,” My key point is that we should not pretend to know something we don’t. Ultimately we have no way of knowing if consciousness or mind or whatever makes up the entire universe, etc, and perhaps will never know.”

    Very good point tom, being honest to yourself is of utmost importance. Self- deception is a most basic fault from which all sort of spiritual illnesses originate.

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  5. Tom wrote,” Look up ‘Johari’s window’ if you are having trouble with any of this”

    I am not having trouble with any of this Tom, This is what I myself think since many many years past. Because I do not know your thinking so I wanted to find out how you think. My way of communication is by asking questions.

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  6. Tom wrote,” Lastly it is also entirely possible there are things that may be impossible to know by the human mind/consciousness, things that will forever remain unknown to me.”

    That is super excellent. My congratulations to you for understanding this.

    Best wishes.

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