Notes on The Refigerator Light
Consciousness is the hot topic in neurology, psychology and philosophy right now. It is something we cannot touch, cannot measure and cannot quantify, even though it is perhaps our most basic experience as a human being. What is it?
Thomas Aquinas philosophized three levels of consciousness
It is hard to imagine how anyone can determine that a plant or tree has consciousness, other than it being a matter of belief. Pythagoras, when he wasn’t drawing triangles, apparently remembered a previous life as a tree, but otherwise there is little justification for the idea.
The sensitive would be the animal kingdom. Animals certainly seem to be conscious. Is their consciousness equal to humans? Perhaps it is, but their brains – what they are conscious of – are inferior. Just like with ourselves. In the morning we are dull and sleepy, but still just as conscious. It is just that we are conscious of the dullness.
The rational might be the self-knowing quality of Human’s consciousness. We are not just conscious, but we know we are conscious.
So where is consciousness, and what is it? Just because we cannot touch or measure something does not mean that it is not there. We relate to electrons, black holes, dark matter and dark engery as if they are real, even though we can’t directly experience them. Perhaps we can look at consciousness in the same way?
A materialist (philosophically speaking) would hold that consciousness is just an illusion of matter. A functionalist would hold that consciousness is a separate real phenomena, but that it is a function of matter. Break apart the matter (body) and the consciousness will cease with it. In theory if these theories were true, it is possible (though perhaps infeasible) to build a machine that is actually conscious. An idealist would hold that only consciousness is real – since we can only e aware of consciousness, and never things-in-themselves.
Philosophically speaking the topic of consciousness is still wide open, with lots of views and ideas, all very interesting.
Psychology has a few things to say that set the picture for the Buddhist model of vinyana (vi`n`naana) that we translate as ‘consciousness’.
One of the true Grandfathers of psychology investigated what it is to be conscious – from the inside. He and his students came up with some observations that were never given their due place in the realm of psychology.
They observed that there is a wide field of experience it is possible to know at any point. They called it the Blickfeld – ‘field of seeing’ [thanks Rien for the translation]. From within this field of sense data, you can select something to bring into your centre of consciousness – called blickpunct. Quite remarkably this was thoroughly investigated, and published in 1897 . The very keen research can click here for some of the original text .
The resulting experience was called apperception.
There have been various researchers who added to this theory. One says we have 400million bits of information hitting the senses every second, but that we are only aware of about 2000 bits. Another shows that we actually have a very short term memory/awareness of a lot of data, but that we cignore it unless something jumps out. So if you are busy reading a book, and someone behind you mentions your name, when it is sensed it jumps out and you then turn your awareness to it. This is the important point. You sense and are aware of it, before you become conscious of it. It is the faculty of attention that makes something actually conscious. The very mindful might notice a time lag between something sensed, and the turning of attention on to it to make it conscious. Such as hearing the starting gun at a race – your body has already started moving in reaction to the starting gun, before your attention is able to make the sound conscious.
It is highly probable that schizophrenia is a disorder of this process, where people are conscious of several things at the same time.
The Buddha’s model of this process is interested in the ‘making conscious’ part only. It is perhaps the purest Buddhist teaching that we have, and the one most commonly used to explain Dhamma in the suttas. It is fairly straightforward, at least until it comes to the actual practice.
You need a sense organ. You need an object of the sense. You put attention onto that object, and then cognition (usually translated as consciousness) arises. Once something is in conscious attention, you then have ‘Contacting’ which is a process of ‘following after’ that sense impression. It means you are interested in it and pay further attention. Then the following list varies a little depending on the context of the sutta. Usually you have something like ‘Exploring’ (mano pavicaara) which is often described as ‘paying attention to the signs and features of something’. Often this is summed up as ‘nandi’ or ‘delighting in’. From this comes feeling of liking/disliking, craving, and often mental proliferation (papa`nca).
A number of fascinating observations can be made around this topic – some of which will be mentioned in following talks.
The Refrigerator Light
Within the blickfeld – the field of awareness, there is a special object of focus. The awareness itself. This is what in English we would call the feeling of being conscious. This is nothing supernatural – anyone can feel it anytime. Right now do you feel conscious ? If you stop and look, you can feel it. Whenever you ask the question ‘am I conscious’ you can feel it. This is called Sampajanya (sampaja`n`na) in the Pali. It is translated as ‘awareness’.
Because you can feel it every time you ask the question you assume that you feel it the whole time. In fact you don’t. It is rather like the light in the fridge (what Americans call refrigerator). It is on every time you take a look. But actually when you are not looking it is off.
So with the feeling of awareness, you assume you feel it the whole time. But though it is always there to be felt with all possible mind states, in fact you spend very very little time knowing you are conscious.
This here then, is the practice of Sati Sampajanya – that which in Buddhism is called mindfulness.
- Sati means to call into mind. Recall.
- Sampajanya is the feeling of Awareness
Put these two words together and you get that fridge light – calling into your mind the feeling of awareness.
More that What You are Doing
So this feeling is to be maintained throughout activities. This is proper mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is not just about being present for your current action. It is about keeping that fridge light on. About knowing that feeling of knowing you are conscious and aware, even while engaged in various activities.
Take the example of Alain Robert – he just climbed 80 storeys of a building in Kuala Lumpur. Tap his name into YouTube and there are lots of videos of him.
While climbing he is most certainly ‘present for what he is doing’. He is not thinking of the past or the future. He is in the present moment, and knows what he is doing. But he is not getting enlightened. Mindfulness in Buddhism is something more than just knowing what you are doing. In this model of COGNITION one watches the process. One moment you are aware and getting into meditation mode. Then one of the senses impinges on your consciousness, and you lose self awareness, and get caught up in that sense. Be it feeling with the body, thinking of something, or even getting caught up and lost in the meditation object, such as the breathing. The moment you realize you got caught up is the moment of self-knowing. Of knowing you are aware.
Meditation then is spotting, valuing and cultivating this sense of knowing the feeling of consciousness. It is lucid and present. And if you can maintain it the mind starts to re-collect and center itself. It becomes bright, and if you can really keep it going, the mind becomes very bright and powerful.
One nice analogy the Buddha gave was of a mountain spring. As it comes out of the ground it trickles away and soaks into the ground in one of six directions. If you build a wall around it, then the water is collected and can be used for cleaning, bathing etc.. If then you were to break the wall at any point the water would go rushing in that direction with force. So too if you are maintaining mindfulness, without it trickling out and being absorbed with the conscious engagement of a sense, then it builds up the power and ‘wieldiness’ to attain to super-mundane states and knowledge.
Note that though one is ‘self-aware’ it does not need to be confused with either ego or atman. The ego comes from thinking and the mind. Awareness is much more pure than this – and when you find yourself thinking, or the ego springing up, it is just another sense impression. In this case it is the mind sense. You can keep knowing the awareness, even through thoughts, just as you can through activity such as walking, or feelings of pain in the body. If mindfulness is maintained, all of the senses will lose the power to enthrall, while your sense of presence increases. That includes the ego and thinking sense – it loses its power to distract you from the meditation.
The suttas themselves are a little difficult to read until you are accostomed to the style and topics. This model of cognition appears frequently, such as the Chachakka Sutta or the Salayatanavibhanga sutta.
A 20 page document on the nature of consciousness/ cognition in Psy and Buddhism :