Conscious of What?

Normally I don’t think much about questions like “What is the ultimate nature of consciousness?”  To try to answer that is to use words, and I suspect consciousness per se is much bigger than the part of it that uses words to describe and define things.  It can certainly be useful at times to use words to point to some aspects of consciousness, a kind of “Try doing so-and-so with your mind and an interesting thing may happen,” for example.  But recently a colleague asked me a question about a deep aspect of consciousness that I think is generally interesting, so I’ll share my thinking about it.

>The phenomenologists claim that “consciousness is ‘consciousness of'” [some object stimulus].  Is this question of interest to you and if so, do you have views on it? <

My response:

I’m trying to relate to this question from, as much as possible, personal experience.  When I can, I try to bring personal experience to bear on questions – remembering how great individual differences can be – as I’m very aware of how the intellect, ungrounded in actual experience, can take us all over the place.  My mind is very “good” at that, so it’s a discipline for me to try to keep coming back to direct experience.

The closest I can come to “consciousness without an object” is this.

Back in the 70s I took several classes on meditation with a local Tibetan lama, Tarthang Tulku.  At that time and for years thereafter, I thought of myself as an almost totally unsuccessful meditator, but believing it was an important practice, I kept getting instruction and trying to practice.

Tarthang Tulku’s English was poor back then, but one of the phrases I heard him mention many times and which fascinated me was “…the space between thoughts.”  What an interesting idea!  But it was nothing but an abstract idea for me, there was no space between my thoughts!  Zing, zing, zing, one thought after another at high speed, never a break.

Years later I finally gave up attempting meditation, as all the instructions seemed to start with “First quiet your mind and then….” and I could never get to the quiet I thought was required to go on to the “and then” part with all those thoughts zinging by…..

Flash forward some more years to repeated meditation instructions from Shinzen Young, who I think is a genius in teaching meditation in forms that work for Westerners like me.  He taught us to observe thoughts, something which was previously impossible for me, as hardly would I notice a thought before it caught me up and carried me away on its flight.  Maybe a dozen thoughts later I would remember that I was supposed to be observing thoughts, not be lost in them.  I often described this with the analogy that a thought, for me, was like a beautiful woman coming past, smiling seductively at me, and saying “Hi Charley, follow me…” and I was off and away!

Shinzen divided the category of “thought” into two observable categories.  One was internal visual imagery, the second was internal talk.  As a preliminary exercise, he then had each of us try to find where, insofar as we could somatically localize, in our bodies internal images and internal words, internal talk, occurred.  I found my internal images occurred on a screen just behind my eyes the vast majority of the time, and my internal talk occurred in a region in the back of my throat.  I suspect that may be where my vocal chords are located, but I’m going on what I could experience here, the internal touch sensations.  When I observed an internal image, it generally occurred on that internal screen area right in back my eyes, and when I observed internal talk, it occurred, with accompanying slight touch sensations, in the back of my throat.

Other peoples places where they observed imagery and talk might be different, but my places were, in Shinzen’s experience, commonly found ones.

Shinzen then had us concentrate on observing internal imagery by keeping some attention, a “light touch” for me, as it were, on the place where my internal imagery screen was.  This sensitized me to internal imagery.  It hadn’t really occurred to me before how much the flow of my imagery was often a kind of thinking about things.  Similarly, he had us observe internal talk by keeping some somatic attention on the place where it occurred, the back of my throat for me.  I found this enabled me to observe internal talk, strings of words that I could describe to other people, more quickly than usually.  I also found that when I deliberately kept some attention on the place where internal talk occurred, it tended not to occur at all, or to trail off into nothingness rapidly as a result of my attention to it.

Both of these attentional foci were to be done with what Shinzen considers the basics of meditation, concentration, clarity, and equanimity about whatever one observed.

So now, during my process of meditation, when I want to observe “thought,” I break that down into either focusing on internal imagery, or focusing on inner talk, or keeping attention on both simultaneously.

My degree of success with this, compared to my total lack of success at “observing thought” in the past, came as a total surprise to me.  I’m far from perfect at it, but I am now able to observe “thought” while meditating.  Further, coming back specifically to your question, when I am keeping some attention on somatic stimuli from the locus of internal talk, I often have periods of seconds to a minute or more when there is no internal talk!  Getting even a little more subtle about it, sometimes I can feel a kind of vague stirring there, as if some part of my mind wants to create words, but can’t quite bring them up above the threshold.  Similarly, sometimes I have periods of no distinct imagery, the “screen” is just random seeming visual noise, the constantly changing black and white pixels from ambient light stimulating my closed eyelids, like a TV tuned to an empty channel, “snow.”

So, is consciousness for me always consciousness of something?

I would have to say that, compared to my normal rapid train of thought, imagery, emotions, and action, a plentitude of somethings, I can sometimes remain for short periods in a state in which there is nothing in particular happening internally, no definite images, no words.  I’m aware that I’m aware, but not in a particularly obvious way, I’m not telling myself that, but I’m clearly “conscious.”  If there is an external stimulus or body stimulus, I’ll be aware of it but I won’t grasp it or reject it and I won’t think about it in ways that produce imagery or inner talk.  Whether this is a clear contradiction to what the phenomenologists mean, I don’t know, but it’s data I have observed, rather than unfounded intellectual speculation.  It’s certainly consciousness with an awful lot less of “consciousness of something.”

I suspect there can be big individual differences in how people experience something like this, and since it’s an unusual experience for most people, they may overvalue it as a great insight and the final answer to what consciousness is.

One comment

  1. Dear Dr Tart,
    I represent Complete Wellbeing, a self-improvement magazine based in India and write on behalf of Editor-Publisher Manoj Khatri. We are coming up with a special issue on Living a mindful life’ and would like to use excerpts from your ‘Living the Mindful Life’ for the same [We read some portions on and were really impressed by the book].

    We will give due credit to you and the publishing house for the same. In addition, we will publish a photograph of you as the author of the book along with a snapshot of the book cover, the price and a link to your/publisher?s website. We regularly excerpt from books and I can send you samples if you share your email id with me.

    Please suggest how to take this forward. Looking forward to hearing from you.

    Stay well,
    Shiv Joshi
    Deputy Editor
    Complete Wellbeing
    Desk phone: 022 67420906

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