Exploring the Mysteries of Consciousness

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

Awareness is the basis of all our experience, yet it remains mysterious. Intuition, imagination, emotion, reason, mind, instinct, creativity — few of us can give a fully satisfying explanation of any of these, although we experience them daily. Within us, however, is an awareness that goes radically deeper than the thoughts and feelings we usually identify as "ourself." As mystics throughout the ages have affirmed, the consciousness which forms the very core of our being is identical with that at the core of every other being and thing. It connects us with each and all because it is the root of their existence also.

Why do we generally fail to realize this? Ordinarily, we are overwhelmed by the intensity of our sense perceptions and by our mental interpretations of them. Modern culture especially makes mind and intellect the arbiters of reality, but they have not always enjoyed such high prestige. Hindu philosophy, for example, classifies mind as the "king of the senses," holding that, when unilluminated by spirit, its habits and limitations condemn us to inhabit a largely deceptive self-made world, a realm of illusion (maya). Many of these misconceptions and self-imposed limitations are collective and widespread, because most human beings are limited in roughly the same ways. Our challenge is to awaken from this self-restricting dream world and, transcending it, to behold successively more comprehensive vistas of reality.

What, we may wonder, does current research contribute to our efforts and explorations along these lines? The vast majority in academic fields still describe consciousness as a byproduct of the biochemical and neurological complexity of the brain, continuing the materialistic approach of the 20th century. However, other scholars and professionals studying the subject experientially are amassing evidence that points to very different conclusions. Reviewing and synthesizing over forty years of such investigations, psychiatrist and transpersonal psychologist Stanislov Grof asserts in The Cosmic Game (1998) that

Modern consciousness research has generated important data that support the basic tenets of the perennial philosophy. It has revealed a grand purposeful design underlying all of creation and has shown that all of existence is permeated by superior intelligence. In light of these new discoveries, spirituality is affirmed as an important and legitimate endeavor in human life, since it reflects a critical dimension of the human psyche and of the universal scheme of things. — p. 3

The evidence from modern consciousness studies is thus "in radical conflict with the most fundamental assumptions of materialistic science concerning consciousness, human nature, and the nature of reality. They clearly indicate that consciousness is not a product of the brain, but a primary principle of existence, and that it plays a critical role in the creation of the phenomenal world" (ibid.). Consciousness here is fundamental — to us and to everything else, including the cosmos as a whole — in the same way that substance is. Together they form two primary aspects of an underlying reality beyond the ken of manifested being.

Perhaps Grof's most crucial statement is that "in its farthest reaches, the psyche of each of us is essentially commensurate with all of existence and ultimately identical with the cosmic creative principle itself" (p. 3). Hologram-like, each being is a microcosm, a portion of the many which contains in potential the originating One. In a certain sense we may think of the universe bringing itself into being through an act of cosmic creative imagination. We, too, are the ideation of our deepest self, and at the same time we continuously evolve through the creative visualizations of our everyday self, for imaginative projection has the power to shape reality.

Grof's statement also implies that everything in this "ensouled universe" can be experienced both subjectively and objectively, including "all the elements of the material world through the entire range of space-time" as well as "various aspects of other dimensions of reality, such as archetypal beings and mythological domains of the collective unconscious" (p. 16). Because our consciousness encompasses all, limitless in scope and quality, we can learn by direct conscious participation — by becoming. We need not always be confined to being a "subject" examining an "object."

But does this type of experiential, subjective exploration — whether ancient or modern — qualify as "science"? Grof argues that it does:

Many of the great spiritual systems are products of centuries of in-depth exploration of the human psyche and consciousness that in many ways resemble scientific research.
These systems offer detailed instructions concerning the methods of inducing spiritual experiences on which they base their philosophical speculations. They have systematically collected data drawn from these experiences and subjected them to collective consensus validation, usually over a period of many centuries. These are exactly the stages necessary for achieving valid and reliable knowledge in every area of scientific endeavor . . . — p. 4

Such observations foreshadow a future synthesis of modern science with more traditional spiritual and psychological knowledge. Such a union would produce a fresh new philosophical understanding of human life and the universe, not a return to unvalidated religious dogmatism and scientific ignorance.

In our search to learn more about the mysteries of consciousness, each of us, as a conscious entity, has the power and the means, if we will, to fathom nature in all its aspects. In G. de Purucker's words, we can discover for ourselves "that original Truth, from which all great religions and all great philosophies sprang in their origin," and "then know that Truth is ageless and deathless, but yet takes up its abode in every earnest human heart, where it awaits recognition in order to pour its flood of light into the waiting mind." The key to both knowledge and wisdom remains the same as ever: "know thyself" — our real self — because to do so in fullness is to know ALL.

 (From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2002; copyright © 2002 Theosophical University Press)


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