Recent studies on the nature of human consciousness appear to move around the central question, What is a human being?, without actually entering the kernel of the subject. The ambiguous situation in which those of us who study the concept of consciousness find ourselves might be due to the poverty of our vocabulary to convey the subtle thinking necessary to probe into it. Our language is mostly of the pragmatic kind, honed for the needs of technology rather than refined for penetration into the mysteries of being.
It is quite evident that a typical human being is different from any other species on this planet, and the main difference is suggested by the capacity of any man or woman to be self-reflectively aware. Equally important is our capacity to project our thinking into time and space, in other words, abstract thought. Humans are also concerned with the how and why of the cosmos and themselves. Memory and a kind of forecasting or foresight are tied in with this faculty to take account of past, present, and future at the same moment as we sit at home or in the office, reflecting or visualizing dimensionally. We also enjoy humor on many levels.
These capacities come with the inherent ability we have to think — a process that involves not only assessment of impressions taken in through the five senses, but also abstraction or generalizing from individual cases. That is, we can perceive principles or natural laws under which beings and earth-happenings operate. Our speculations, which are really formless, are not the automatic follow-on of what our senses tell us, but originate in an aspect of ourselves demonstrably beyond the capacity of the brain cells themselves to organize. It is more logical to conceive of the brain as the instrument of this nonsubstantial side of our being, functioning more like the telephone switchboard of some large enterprise, than as the originator of the things that we think, do, or say that are characteristic of a human being.
What then is consciousness if it is other than mere awareness, whether of surroundings or even the experience of the oneness of nature that is called satori by the Zen roshis? It seems that we can best suggest a meaning if we refer to it as the essence of a living being, a pulsating creature of light and spirit. We can visualize that there are stages of unfoldment of potential qualities as they emanate from this essence, providing outer expression for inherent capacities, the whole process being the evolution of consciousness rather than of its forms produced one from another. Expanding this idea, we can picture that growth is really the flow of the tidal stream of beings throughout the universe and is not limited to this planet of ours.
There is no doubt that on earth there is but one vast life-energy, and not several rivals for the limited space provided. If the latter were indeed the case there would be indications of divergent sources or discordant drives between species, whereas we have evidence there is an interlocking relationship of all earth's beings. Scientists have designated this harmonizing a biosphere or ecological system. What affects one concerns the whole, and the responsibility upon us is great because of our decision-making ability, our freedom of choice and will power.
Freedom of choice, will power, imagination, and decision making are not discernible faculties of substance as such, but belong in the formless region of the human being, his essence or consciousness. It is in the sense that we are all centers of consciousness that some systems of philosophy have pointed to our infinite possibilities. For if godhood can be symbolized as a circle whose circumference is nowhere — because it is infinite — but whose center is everywhere, then we are all repositories of that center.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2002; copyright © 2002 Theosophical University Press)