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 currently 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.

Can the teaching ‘everything is consciousness’ be useful?

Ironically, yes. Even though ultimately we don’t know, the teaching that everything is consciousness can still be useful. How so? Well the teachings aim to undermine the belief in a separate self, or the notion of being an independent doer-entity, and in that regard this philosophical idealism of everything being consciousness can be useful. The idea is that the teaching is an antidote to a fixed belief. More on how that works here.  The key is that once the job of the conceptual teaching is done, we don’t cling to this new concept which simply becomes a new problem and a new way of perpetuating the ego.

The consciousness teachings or awareness teachings, as I call them, can also point to a still-point in our experience that is always present, at least whilst we are awake. It is that which never changes and is always ever-present, un-touched and ever-aware. Recognising this aspect of our being can be very liberating and can give us the emotional security to open up to our thoughts and feelings, and allow our emotional-spiritual hearts to open, and can allow us to feel happier and whole.

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.

Jnaneshvar: Is Sat-Chit-Ananda the supreme?


Jnaneshvar (1275–1296), also known as Jnanadev is widely acclaimed as a great self-realised master and teacher whose poetry and writings have influenced many generations after him. He was part of the Nath tradition, an ancient lineage of spiritual masters, which has become recently famous in the West due to Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897-1981), a more recent initiate in the Nath tradition.
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Ramana Maharshi: Is the world an illusion?

Ramana smiling

In many spiritual traditions, such as some schools of of Buddhism, vedanta and yoga, seekers are advised to consider the world to be like a dream: ephemeral, transient and illusory. But is the world really an illusion, or is this merely a teaching method?

Many well-versed pandits and scholars have debated this very issue over the centuries, but for those that have glimpsed the reality that lies beyond mere verbal assertions, such debates are missing the essential point.

Here are two powerful quotes from Ramana Maharshi explaining how the teachings work:

Question: “Brahman (the Supreme Spirit) is real. The world is illusion” is the stock phrase of Sri Sankaracharya. Yet others say, “The world is reality.” Which is true?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Both statements are true. They refer to different stages of development and are spoken from different points of view. The (spiritual) aspirant starts with the definition, that which is real exists always. Then he eliminates the world as unreal because it is changing.
The seeker ultimately reaches the Self and there finds unity as the prevailing note. Then, that which was originally rejected as being unreal is found to be a part of the unity. Being absorbed in the reality, the world also is real. There is only being in Self-realisation, and nothing but being.
From Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 33

We can clearly see Ramana says the teaching that the world is an illusion is itself a ‘thorn used to remove a thorn’. The teaching is a concept, and it is used to remove another concept, before they are both thrown away.

Here is another instructive quote:

Sri Ramana Maharshi: At the level of the spiritual seeker you have got to say that the world is an illusion. There is no other way. When a man forgets that he is Brahman, who is real, permanent and omnipresent, and deludes himself into thinking that he is a body in the universe which is filled with bodies that are transitory, and labours under that delusion, you have got to remind him that the world is unreal and a delusion.
Why? Because his vision which has forgotten its own Self is dwelling in the external, material universe. It will not turn inwards into introspection unless you impress on him that all this external material universe is unreal.
When once he realises his own Self he will know that there is nothing other than his own Self and he will come to look upon the whole universe as Brahman.
There is no universe without the Self. So long as a man does not see the Self which is the origin of all, but looks only at the external world as real and permanent, you have to tell him that all this external universe is an illusion. You cannot help it.
Take a paper. We see only the script, and nobody notices the paper on which the script is written. The paper is there whether the script on it is there or not. To those who look upon the script as real, you have to say that it is unreal, an illusion, since it rests upon the paper. The wise man looks upon both the paper and script as one. So also with Brahman and the universe.
From letters from Sri Ramanasramam

Here in the next excerpt Ramana is asked directly if the world is perceived after realisation:

A visitor: Is the jagat (world) perceived even after Self-Realization?
M.: From whom is this question? Is it from a Jnani or from an ajnani?
D.: From an ajnani.
M.: Realise to whom the question arises. It can be answered if it arises after knowing the doubter. Can the jagat or the body say that it is?
Or does the seer say that the jagat or the body is? The seer must be there to see the objects. Find out the seer first. Why worry yourself now with what will be in the hereafter?

[Tom – Ramana is telling the questioner not to worry about this question and rather attend to himself ie. to do self-enquiry]

Sri Bhagavan continued: What does it matter if the jagat is perceived or not perceived? Have you lost anything by your perception of jagat now? Or do you gain anything where there is no such perception in your deep sleep? It is immaterial whether the world is perceived or not perceived.

[Tom: Now Ramana answers the question directly:]

The ajnani sees the Jnani active and is confounded. The jagat is perceived by both; but their outlooks differ. Take the instance of the cinema. There are pictures moving on the screen. Go and hold them.
What do you hold? It is only the screen. Let the pictures disappear.
What remains over? The screen again. So also here. Even when the world appears, see to whom it appears. Hold the substratum of the ‘I’. After the substratum is held what does it matter if the world appears or disappears?
The ajnani takes the world to be real; whereas the Jnani sees it only as the manifestation of the Self. It is immaterial if the Self manifests itself or ceases to do so.
From Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 65

Ribhu Gita – Chapter 18


Listen and read the Song of Ribhu. Let the words wash over you. These words are not to be analysed and contemplated; they are to sink into your bones and marrow and stir that Ancient Knowing that is already there within you.

Read, chant, have faith (let go into presence) and be free!

1. Ribhu: Listen again the the supreme knowledge that confers liberation immediately. All is Brahman alone, always. All is tranquility – there is no doubt.

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