Q. Does awareness or consciousness arise in the brain, or is consciousness itself the primary ground of existence?

consciousness brain.jpg

Question: Does ‘awareness’ or ‘consciousness’ have a source, eg. is the actual brain organ the source of all manifestations and sensations? Or is consciousness primary and the ground of existence?

Tom: I don’t know the answer to that question. I only know about ending suffering. When suffering ends, one could say that all there is is consciousness, as this is the undivided experience, but this is only an experiential truth, not a scientific one, and so your actual question remains unanswered.

I wrote an article on this topic while back, feel free to take a look: Is everything really consciousness?

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6 thoughts on “Q. Does awareness or consciousness arise in the brain, or is consciousness itself the primary ground of existence?

  1. I think that’s a deeply unsatisfactory answer which echoes the minimalistic early Buddhist view of enlightenment as nothing more than the “end of suffering”. If that’s all there is to it then one should at least be bold enough to declare Advaita/Zen style teachings – or basically anything that speaks of God,”the Self”, consciousness , emptiness etc – as just convenient fiction or even pure nonsense.

    Now there are spiritual writers who come close to saying that. Of the top off my mind I can think of Robert Saltzman as being a good example of someone who speaks of some kind of psychological transformation while dismissing all metaphysical/religious/spiritual implications of “awakening”. Unlike you, however, he does not approvingly quote Ramana Maharishi, Krishnamurti, Shankara, Nisargadatta et al.

    The central question is this : Can you, based on direct experience alone, vouch for the metaphysical claims of these spiritual luminaries? The sense that I get from your writings is that you can’t (and you are welcome to correct me if I am wrong). That being so, how do you explain the certitude with which Ramana and others put forth claims, which while not refutable by science aren’t confirmed by it either? I can think of two possible (and mutually exclusive) explanations. Either this is because these folks lacked the scientific education to think about these issues clearly and mistook their own hallucinations for profound insight, or they spoke from a perspective that you (or Saltzman for that matter) haven’t discovered. In other words,could you be “less enlightened” than you think?

    Regards

    Amit

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    1. Dear Amit

      Yes, I openly admit all such verbal teachings are provisional. The Advaita texts and Ramana all state that objective knowledge, ie. knowledge in the mind, which includes all metaphysical truths/theories/realisations and teachings, are simply more ignorance. Ramana explains this in his 40 verses on reality. Ashtavakra speaks of this in his Gita. This is also the meaning of ‘use a thorn to remove a thorn then throw them both away’ and when Ramana stated all that is learnt will have to be forgotten. Also the Upanishads state – the highest truth is there is no liberation, no seeker, no creation, etc, etc. If there is no creation, can there be real metaphysical knowledge?

      See here for an example: https://tomdas.com/2017/01/24/ranjit-maharaj-use-a-thorn-to-remove-a-thorn-then-throw-them-both-away/

      It is a fundamental mistake/projection of egotism/ignorance to think that a person such as Ramana, etc, becomes liberated and obtains some kind of special knowledge of reality, see here: https://tomdas.com/2019/05/25/nobody-here-the-jnani-is-not-a-person-ramana-maharshi-quotes/

      There is also a big clue in this post here: https://tomdas.com/2015/06/16/self-realisation-is-non-verbal/

      There are numerous more quotes I could provide to you but I hope the above suffices

      Best wishes

      Tom

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      1. One could say that all knowledge is limited since the description can never be the described – even the best description of a burger wouldn’t do justice to the actual experience of eating a burger. However, the fact that the description and described are fundamentally different does not mean that one could give just about any description since it is all ignorance anyway. Logically, there has to be some correspondence between how awakening is described and how it actually is. So for instance, why do spiritual masters speak of some kind of “oneness” and “love” (as opposed to say “fiveness” and genocidal fury) as being the essential qualities of enlightenment? Now we may not know exactly what “love” or “oneness” mean until they are experienced, but I would be surprised if upon an actual awakening one finds that the teachers were totally off the mark (like describing an orange instead of a burger!)

        This is one reason why I find your seeming endorsement of mutually incompatible notions of awakening somewhat odd. The Ashtavakra Gita is quite different from the Bhagwad Gita and Ramana Maharishi and Krishnamurti don’t seem to be talking about the same thing. Beyond the need to be politically correct (“all religions lead to the same Truth” type of tripe), I fail to see how one could argue that to speak of enlightenment in glowing, emotional terms (“Satchitananda”, “bliss”, “God-realization” etc) is essentially the same as speaking of it in minimalistic, unemotional language (“no –self”, “emptiness”). Not all of the difference can be put down to personality and cultural context.

        At times, I have toyed with the hypothesis that perhaps there are different levels or types of enlightenment. The mistake that some teachers make is that they generalize from their particular experience of awakening to lay down a broad theory. For others, I think that talk of ineffability and “everything being an illusion” is just a convenient cover for lack of certitude or direct experience.

        The point that I was trying to make in my initial comment (perhaps it wasn’t made that well) was that your agnosticism about whether Consciousness/Awareness is a primary reality or just a product of biological processes sits at odds with the confident claim (which you repeat here) that ultimately all knowledge (even “creation”) is illusory. In saying that you defer to scientific truth in deciding where Consciousness ultimately comes from you end up saying that all spiritual teachings (which are mostly unscientific) are just convenient fictions (as opposed to necessarily limited descriptions) needed to produce a desirable psychological state (“end of suffering”). On the other hand, if you actually buy the Upanishadic notion that all manifestation is an illusion (and I would like to know if there is anything in your experience that makes you accept that) , then you shouldn’t be diffident about proclaiming that that Consciousness/Awareness is the fundamental reality that transcends all material processes.

        I don’t know if I am making myself clear, but there is a huge difference between saying that once spiritual teachings serve their purpose, they need to be discarded (a piece of advice that I have always found a bit redundant anyway since if enlightenment is a real thing then the actual experience should naturally remove any attachment to descriptions) and saying that they are just nonsense and so one needn’t bother with pointing out contradictions etc.

        Finally, on the question of there being “no person”. I feel that it’s unhelpful to use quotes from Raman etc. which clearly outline a particular view of reality ( manifestation being an illusion, only Self being real and so on) and then deflect close scrutiny of the same by saying that there is actually “no one” there to say anything. I believe that anyone saying anything has an obligation to be consistent and make sense. I myself often fail to achieve this (as this rambling reply demonstrates  ), but I don’t make a spiritual virtue out of it.

        Regards,

        Amit

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  2. Dear Amit

    I understand what you are saying. I find what you write very clear and understand why you see these teachings as being so different to each other.

    It is interesting to me that you don’t like the idea of dropping a teaching once it’s work has been done, especially as this is often part of the teaching tradition, esp in Buddhist teachings where this is explicit, but also in vedic teachings including Ashtavakra Gita where this principle is more subtlely implied. As you also state, the dropping of the teaching naturally occurs with genuine realisation anyway…

    Eg. Swami Chinmayananda talks of how even the notion of Brahman is usurped in the Ashtavakra Gita, but he was under the view that there is consistency with all the teachings you mentioned above (as are most advaitins), something you disagree with.

    I tend to be less focused on theory and above issues and more focussed on bringing a practical realisation to those who come my way and who are earnest seekers. The specifics of one’s journey, including the underlying philosophical concepts one utilises, varies considerably from person to person.

    So perhaps a pragmatic way forwards for us here is not to convince you of what I write, as agreement on these issues is actually secondary in terms of facilitating realisation, but to ask you:

    1. Are you genuinely seeking as opposed to this being a mere intellectual plaything?
    2. If so, what teachings, teachers or methods resonate with you?
    3. What spiritual practices, if any, are you undertaking?

    Best wishes

    Tom

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  3. “It is interesting to me that you don’t like the idea of dropping a teaching once it’s work has been done, especially as this is often part of the teaching tradition, esp in Buddhist teachings where this is explicit, but also in vedic teachings including Ashtavakra Gita where this principle is more subtlely implied. As you also state, the dropping of the teaching naturally occurs with genuine realisation anyway…”

    It’s not so much that I don’t like the “idea” of dropping a teaching as that I consider this point to be somewhat overdone in many schools. It’s like how much effort did I have to put in to “discard” my idea of a doughnut when I first tasted a real doughnut at Dunkins? Not much I recall. Besides why should I even discard the idea? If what I had read or heard about doughnuts was shown to be true by the actual experience of eating one (despite the fact that the experience and the concept are necessarily different things belonging to different orders of reality) then I can very well hold on to the concept of a doughnut, which is now enriched by actual experience.

    If, on the other hand, the experience turns out to be entirely different from what was anticipated based on descriptions, then there might be a need to revisit the concept. In either case, when actual experience happens, the concept inevitably recedes into the background without too much effort. Why should it be any different for spiritual teachings? Unless it is being implied that having a particularly well-worked out theory in advance might impede the actual experience. Krishnamurti sort of suggested this but that did not stop him from talking and writing about spirituality for 60 years.

    The thing is, we can’t just start out without any theory at all (nobody has). And I just can’t buy the idea that since no theory can give a taste of the real thing (which is actually as true for doughnuts and ice-cream as it is for enlightenment), therefore one shouldn’t even look at theories closely to see which might be a more accurate description of the spiritual realm. Now I admit that since I have no real spiritual realization of my own it is possible that I am missing the point. But I have this belief that while spiritual Truth (whatever that is) may be supra-rational, it can’t be irrational. So for instance, I feel that concepts such as the “Self” and “liberation” are more plausible than the “Devil” and the “Second Coming” though strictly speaking the latter could in fact be true.

    “I tend to be less focused on theory and above issues and more focussed on bringing a practical realisation to those who come my way and who are earnest seekers. The specifics of one’s journey, including the underlying philosophical concepts one utilises, varies considerably from person to person.”

    I wonder if that is true. Virtually all your posts point to one or the other “theory” of spirituality. And my beef is that quite often they are mutually contradictory. Now if you were a religious scholar exploring comparative spirituality, it would be fine, but you claim to be speaking from direct realization. So my central question is: has that realization amounted to nothing more than “end of suffering”? Usually people who claim awakenings emphatically present one or the other metaphysical perspective based on what their direct experience has shown. You seem fine with mutually incompatible views on the plea that it’s all pointless anyway. That seems strange to me, in part because I tend to see “end of suffering” as a byproduct (one among many) of enlightenment, rather than the essence of enlightenment itself.

    To come back to the issue that triggered this exchange: You are the first apparently awakened guy who seems ambivalent on whether consciousness exists independent of matter and yet claim to revere authorities whose entire outlook is based on that notion.

    “So perhaps a pragmatic way forwards for us here is not to convince you of what I write, as agreement on these issues is actually secondary in terms of facilitating realisation, but to ask you:
    1. Are you genuinely seeking as opposed to this being a mere intellectual plaything?
    2. If so, what teachings, teachers or methods resonate with you?
    3. What spiritual practices, if any, are you undertaking?”

    1. Yes, I genuinely want a realization, but I also seek intellectual clarity and I kind of have the sense that the two shouldn’t be in conflict (though I could be wrong).
    2. Well, the usual suspects: Ramana, Nisragadatta, Krishnamurti, Adyashanti, Eckhart Tolle and also some folks associated with the tradition of the relatively less known American teacher Richard Rose.
    3. I try to sit for meditation (just quiet sitting) for atleast half an hour daily. Plus I practice basic mindfulness whenever I can. And of course intellectual engagement with various philosophies, spiritual and material.

    Regards ,

    Amit

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    1. Dear Amit, the teachings are various and some are contradictory. The point of them all is for the mind to become quiet, and in that regard they concur. It is in the still mind that Spiritual Knowledge comes to and flourishes – these are just words of course. We are convinced we are the body-mind. God reveals her secrets to the quiet mind. Through being thoughtless reality the identification with body-mind is severed.

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