Daniel Catalaa

Consciousness

(Authored by Daniel Catalaa on July 31st, 2009)
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Developing and employing your consciousness is the single most valuable investment you can make. If your current reading material involves romantic novels or time management, put down those books and start tuning into this message. Mental energy spent developing consciousness is orders of magnitute more beneficial than attempting to improve any specific life area be it physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual wellbeing. All of these areas will benefit from higher levels of self awareness and consciousness. The link between consciousness and a better life is that with consciousness you can develop more accurate beliefs, more accurate beliefs allow for better predictions, and better predictions allow for better results. There was a time that you believed in Santa Claus, that the world was flat, and that your parents would take care of you forever. If you had left your life an autopilot and left these beliefs unchanged, what would your life be like today? Though beliefs are key components, and skills allow you to take action, consciousness is what makes you aware of your beliefs and allows you to shape them as new information is learned. So consciousness precedes beliefs in importance and is the key concept from which everything else emanates.

Consciosness defined

What is consciousness? Consciosness is that unique feeling of "I-ness", that I know that I exist. It is the awareness that thoughts are popping in and out of my mind and that I can observe both the internal and external world. Everything you experience could be an illusion including your sense of time, space, and reality. However, you have an anwavering certainty that you are, and you know this because you can hear your own thoughts as you think. This is what Descartes meant when he said "Cogito, ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"). We can rephrase the statement and say "I think, therefore I am a part of consciousness".

Physical reality is just a manifestation of consciousness

I honestly do not remember when I had my first conscious thought. My memory only goes back so far and then there is a moment in the past beyond which I cannot remember. What is clear is that self-awareness did not begin for me at the moment of conception, during gestation, at birth, or even early infancy. If it did, I must have forgotten about it, because my first conscious memory is from when I was about 2 years old. So I perceive a disconnection between my physical existence and my consciousness because historically speaking my body came first, and my self-awareness came two years later. My consciousness was unrelated to my brain. When I had no brain as an early foetus, I had no self-awareness. When I had a fully formed brain from ages 0 to 2 years old, I also had no consciousness.

Altered states of consciousness

Another clue that consciousness was independent of physical reality was heralded by my alarm clock. Most mornings when I wake up I cannot remember my dreams or what I was thinking of while I was sleeping. Except for the times when I ate an undercooked pork chop or saw a horror movie just before going to sleep, when I try to recall what was playing in my mind during the night all I see is a blank screen. Additionally I also noticed that throughout the day my level of consciousness fluctuates. At times I am very focused on a task and totally absorbed by every detail of it, other times, for example while driving on the freeway, my mind wonders. Once I arrive at my destination, I can not recall what my thoughts were during the drive. Though it does change gradually with aging, illness, or exercise, my physical body is mostly permanent. Instead my consciousness appears and disappears suddenly at the asleep-awake boundary, it can transition to altered dream, hypnosis, or meditative states, and I can modulate it during the day by intentionally focusing my attention or letting my mind drift aimlessly.

Why would the brain shut down at night? After all, our heart keeps pumping unabated, our breathing is steady and incessant. So where does the brain go at night?

Consciousness is self-actualizing

There is a time during infant development when a baby finally realizes that the little fingers and toes it sees flashing in front of its eyes are actually its own and this prompts her to starts experimenting with control of her limbs. Likewise there is a self-discovery process going on at the mental level. I imagine that one day as a toddler I had a conversation that went something like this: “Oh, here I am. This is me. Here is a thought. And here is another thought. This is me thinking. Do I exist?”. Of course asking “do I exist” is a silly question, because from the point of view of consciousness the answer is always yes. Only somebody who exists can ask the question in the first place. I believe that I am, and by extension all of life is, a self-fulfilling prophecy that needs no first cause, Big bang, or creator. We just are. And if you are, you cannot begin or end; you can only transform.

Consciousness is the source of physical reality

The prevailing paradigm of reality retains that there is an objective physical world that exist independent of the observer. In other words, a tree would make a noise in the forest if it fell, even if nobody was around to enjoy the thunderous crash. Furthermore, the “world” will go on after you die and you may even end up fertilizing the tree that fell in the previous example :o) Personally, I ascribe to the subjective model of reality, and this means that things only exist when I think about them and it is only because I bring them into my consciousness that I can experience them. The difference between these views is that, in the first case, consciousness is just a byproduct of the physical objective world (i.e. electrical activity in your brain), while in the subjective world physical reality is just one of many manifestations consciousness can take on.

How could something so esoteric and non-physical such as consciousness have a concrete physical manifestation like the world that we see, touch, smell, feel, and hear? There are precedents for this at deepest levels of spirituality and science. Following the spirituality path we know that dreams seem real when we are in them, so it stands to reason that we could be experiencing a dream right now and not be aware of it. Following the scientific path we know that sources of energy such as photons seamlessly alternate between waves (that have no mass) and particles (that have mass). This means that life, or as I like to call it consciousness, is much more porous and flowing then the categories we have created for it. Body and mind are intimately connected and so is this reality with other realities. Hence we easily slip into and out of our dream states every night, we can create worlds that do not exist yet in our mind, and people are naturally born and die every day. It’s natural, it’s normal, and it is happening right now.

Consciousness is the common denominator of life

How did we come into existence? In a biological sense we could say that our parents created the conditions necessary for a sperm to fuse with an egg. Let me just stop here and promise that I will not make you think of your parents having sex again (unless absolutely necessary). In the cosmic sense we could say that we were inanimate matter and that a divine creator gave us life. Dualists believe that both are true, that we are a combination of a physical and non-physical components, or body and mind/soul. A fourth alternative is that we are made up of a single thing, consciousness, and as such can take on multiple forms, of which the physical form is just one of them. We see this behavior with sources of energy such as photons that seamlessly alternates between waves (sun light, magnetism) and particles (electrons). This means that life, or as I like to call it consciousness, is much more porous and flowing then the categories we have created for it. Body and mind are intimately connected and so is this reality with other realities. Hence we easily slip into and out of our dream states every night, we can create worlds that do not exist yet in our mind, and people are naturally born and die every day.

States of Consciousness

Consciousness has different levels and it can be developed and expanded just as a skill can. The only difference is that gains in consciousness have a residual permanence while a skill can be lost if not practiced. Once you know something, you cannot unknown it. To ignore something that you do not know anyway is effortless, but it takes energy to ignore something that you do know and this is done by active suppression. So if as a child you treated others as equals and later learned to be biased, you still remember what it was like to relate with equality even though later in life you decided to lower your consciousness into the realm of prejudice.

As human beings we control our level of consciousness by choosing what to focus our minds on, by experimenting with life, and by interacting with others. For example how do you think these activities affect your consciousness: Meditating, learning, communicating with others and self, over-sleeping, getting drunk, suppressing information contrary to your beliefs, not participating, or even taking your own life?

Levels of consciousness

Consciousness can be low-level consciousness, high-level consciousness, be subconscious, or be unconscious. Lucid dreaming. It is very different to be dreaming when you are conscious that what you are experiencing is a dream, that you can see yourself from a 3rd person perspective, and can in some cases direct your dream. Hence, when I do things unconsciously, I am living, but not at my full capacity.

Where the seat of consciousness?

Is consciousness where the brain is? No, but consciousness is developed faster and better when it employs a healthy brain. People that have suffered brain injuries develop their consciousness slower because the have difficulty perceiving reality and interacting with other conscious beings. To have a heart means that we can be compassionate, and thought we equate a heart with love, we know that love lives elsewhere. Of course it is easier to love in an emotional sense when your heart is healthy in a biological sense. The same goes for the brain and consciousness.

Everything is consciousness, so now what?

Things are made of consciousness and the observer can shape them by focusing his/her thoughts on them. What follows from this belief is that physical reality arises from consciousness, and not the other way around. For your life to be worth living it is not sufficient to have consciousness, you also need the opportunity to develop it. To develop consciousness one needs to be able to interact with others, communicate and reflect inwardly, experience first hand life, use cognitive capacities, learn and store the learning in memory. The gain or loss of self-awareness is the ultimate existential benchmark. When placing phone calls we used to call buildings, for example we called “home” or we called “the office”. Now, through cell phones, we call people, no matter where they are. So, if you consider a structural building to be analogous to your physical body, you can see that life is not where the body is but where the speaker and his consciousness are. I am not talking to your body, I am talking to the part of the greater consciousness that it represents.

Developing your Consciousness

Consciousness is equivalent to vision. The higher our level of consciousness the more accurately we can perceive our surroundings. In effect, consciousness gives rise to the map of reality that we use to plan our lives and to make predictions. One of the main ways you can develop your consciousness is by adopting multiple perspectives. Imagine reality is a beautiful model posing for painters from different schools. The painters have surrounded her and are hard at work behind their easels painting away and representing and interpreting what they see. Now everybody leaves the art studio including Ms. Reality and you step in. You know that reality was in the middle of the room but the only way you have of knowing what she was like is to look at the various paintings. Would you only look at the painting done by the cubist painter, or by the impressionist, or by the surrealist? Since direct observation of reality is not possible, would it not make more sense to view as many paintings as possible with the understanding that each one only has a piece of the truth?

  • Talk to somebody you fear or judge
  • Visit a country your government has vilified
  • Take on challenging goals
  • Advocate the point of somebody you disagree with
  • Verify whether your theoretical beliefs hold true when tested

I have had several shifts in consciousness throughout my life and these are episodes I would call “awakenings”. For example when I first published my website in 1998 it acted like a digital mirror for my thoughts, desires, and dreams. It was akin to a dear stretching its head down to lap water and suddenly becoming aware of its own reflection.

Another time of deep self-awareness was in 2002 when I commuted between San Francisco and Dublin. As I drove I wrote down on a yellow paper pad my ideas so that they would not get lost. Then I assembled together the disjointed pieces of information to look for a pattern and explicitly express the underlying message.

Living a Conscious life

There is a philosophical school of thought called “fatalism” and it is also known as “determinism”. This belief system sustains that everything in the universe and in our lives is pre-determined and out of our control. In essence, we may chose what path to take, but this is inconsequential, because no matter what path we chose, in the end we will reach the same destination. At the other end of the spectrum we have the idea of “free will”.