We are not solid objects but fields of consciousness. This is of course very easy to see – all I need to do to is to pause for a moment or two and notice how it feels to be here.
The key question (with regard to ascertaining whether I am a solid object or not) is “Do I have an edge?” Is there, in other words, a clearly defined cut-off point between ‘me’ and what is ‘not me’?
If I am not totally caught up in my head, then the answer that comes back is that there is no edge, that there is no sharp boundary, that there is no clearly-defined ‘cut-off’ marking the point at which I end and the rest of the universe begins. My senses, the field of awareness which is my experience of being here, reaches out into the world, is inseparable from the world – it merges seamlessly with the space that is around me rather than being contained, rather than reaching some kind of a limit beyond which it does not go.
This is not some dry old metaphysical theory that we are talking about here but an actual ‘felt experience’ – this is the pragmatic reality of what it feels like to be consciously here. This is the actual experience of what it feels like to be in the world.
The field of consciousness reaches out from me gently and effortlessly – it pervades rather than invades the world around me. It is not a foreign interloper in the world – it is co-extensive with (and commingled with) the world itself. The nature of this field of consciousness is all-pervasive just as space itself is all-pervasive. It goes everywhere, it is everywhere – just as the air is everywhere. The field of consciousness doesn’t have any problems with anything it meets, anything it comes across, any more (as Alan Watts says) than a body of water has any problems accommodating any object we choose to put in it, no matter what shape it might have. As a result of this fluidity, this flexibility, this ‘all-acceptingness’, the experience of being this all-pervasive field of consciousness is extraordinarily harmonious, extraordinarily peaceful. It is essentially an experience of transcendent unity.
Our usual way of talking about (and thinking about) ourselves and the world is of course to deny this harmony, to deny this unity. The rational modality has to deny the actual felt experience otherwise there would be nothing to talk about, nothing to think about. What can I say about the unity when I myself am part of it? The rational mind has no way of either processing (or in any way apprehending) the extraordinary harmoniousness and bewildering edgelessness of the experience of what it feels like being the field of consciousness which reaches out from us into the world. That is something that it just has no truck with, no time for, no interest in. The ‘way’ of rationality is to put everything in boxes, into conceptual categories, and then – and only then, when it has done this to the world – will it relate to it. It has to have everything formatted in its own special way before it can even register reality, and this ‘formatting’ essentially involves fragmenting the whole into a hugely proliferating array of disconnected parts, which we then focus on to the exclusion of any higher unity.
Using this categorical mode of understanding the world, I say that “I have awareness” (or that “I have consciousness”) which straightaway creates the idea of a ‘me’ that is distinct from the awareness. We have the impression of the self being a solid, well-defined thing that possesses the property (or attribute) of consciousness. The unlimited field of consciousness – which is our the actual empirical experience of being aware – is thus demoted to some second-rate consideration, to the level of a mere epiphenomenon, whilst this supposed solid distinct thing that I call ‘the self’ is promoted to the exalted position of being ‘what it’s all about’. Bizarrely therefore, the defined, non-pervasive (i.e. ‘statically congealed’) self is given paramount importance, supreme importance, even though it is only an abstract conceptual category, part of the mechanical filing system of the rational mind.
Consciousness is not seen as a field: according to the rational mind, I am in one box and consciousness is in another, separate box, which means that I am neatly alienated from the immediate and profoundly intimate experience of being in the world. There is no intimacy in the mind-created world – its all ‘under wraps’, its all covered in cling-film, its all observed through glass. All the various separate elements just lie there inertly and obediently – in sterile splendour – in their appropriate mental slots. This state of alienation is so endemic that we even have a discipline of so-called ‘Consciousness Research’, a supposedly scientific discipline through which we hope to find out what consciousness ‘is’ (i.e. through which we find out what cut-and-dried conceptual boxes we can fit it into).
What we are talking about there is a truly astonishing degree of alienation from our own true nature. Here am I, studying this thing called consciousness, as if this consciousness has nothing to do with me, as if it were – somehow – something separate from me. What could be more bizarre than this? It is like the Zen story of a man riding around on his ox in the futile search for that same ox.
Consciousness is seen as some sort of a tool, a tool to give me some sort of advantage in the world. In narrow evolutionary terms, it is seen as nothing more than some sort of a ‘trick’ or ‘gimmick’ that living things have acquired to help them get better at the highly-competitive game of passing on their DNA to the gene-pool of the future, at the expense of their less fit fellow organisms. But if consciousness is my tool, what am I? And what is more, how is that I am able to engage with such remarkable intimacy with it – as if there were actually no boundary between the consciousness itself and the self which ‘is’ conscious?
Our direct (i.e. unmediated) experience of the situation is, as we have said, not one of various separate boxes, one of which is the thing called ‘consciousness’. Our experience – when it is not mediated by the discriminative mind – is ‘all the one thing’. And even that ‘one thing’ isn’t really a ‘thing’ because it doesn’t have any edges, because it doesn’t have any limits, any boundaries. The whole point about this experienced unity is after all that it doesn’t have any boundaries, that it is wonderfully and incomprehensibly ‘all-inclusive’. That’s what makes it a unity.
We turn the unitary world into an array of boxes by thinking about it, rationalizing it, conceptualising it. This is – after all – how thinking works – by putting everything in boxes. The very strange thing is however that we should trust thinking so much that we should value it over our actual direct experience – which is what we have before we start thinking. Thinking is just a way of ordering information according to an arbitrary set of criteria, an arbitrary set of rules; in no way is it indicative of (or expressive of) any deep structure in the fabric of reality itself.
The reason we can say that the categories of thought are not reflective of any deep structure in reality itself is because there is no deep structure in reality. Curiously, thought itself has been ‘instrumental’ in allowing us to see this: the science of physics has progressed over the last few hundred years or so essentially by relativizing our ideas about reality, our models and theories; by showing – in other words – that they are only relatively true, not absolutely true. The effect of this relativizing process has been to cause us to see all the structures that we previously understood as being primary (and therefore irreducible) as being only a ‘front’ for another, deeper level of description, which in turn turns out to be a front for yet another level, and so on and so forth, like the concentric layers of skin of an onion. Thus, solid objects like chairs and tea-pots and cabbages and kangaroos can be resolved into molecules, the molecules can be resolved into atoms, the atoms into subatomic particles, and so on down the line, until the idea of particularity itself becomes problematical. As this process of looking deeper into the structure of the so-called physical universe continued, therefore, physicists came to see that the idea of ‘fields’ represented a more essential level of description than ‘particles’. As Gary Zukov says,
According to quantum field theory, fields alone are real. They are the substance of the universe and not “matter.” Matter is simply the momentary manifestations of interacting fields…
A field has no cut-off points, it pervades space, and in it’s pervading of space it cannot be separated from the space it pervades. The intensity of a field may become attenuated with distance, but it never reaches zero and this is interesting because it is the very antithesis of the way the rational mind likes to see things. A universe in which fields are primary is an Anaxagorean universe – a universe in which “there is a bit of everything in everything.” In contrast, a universe where everything exists in logically defined boxes is an Aristotelian universe, which is where ‘the law of non-contradiction’ or ‘the law of the excluded middle’ holds sway. This law states that an answer to a clearly-defined question must be either YES or NO, but not both YES and NO. What we are talking about here therefore is the logic of boundaries since any given element must either be found on the inside of the boundary (i.e. it is included or allowed) or the outside (which is to say, it is excluded or disallowed). Aristotelian ‘two-term logic’ is what boundaries are all about, and boundaries are what structure (or form) is all about, and structure (or form) is in turn what the state of physicality is all about.
The point here is that physics has now demonstrated that – in direct contradiction of our expectations – the universe we live in is actually an Anaxagorean one, where the bottom line’ is not Aristotelian Logic (AL) at all but Quantum Logic (QL) – which is what Robert Anton Wilson refers to as MAYBE LOGIC. Maybe logic is of course no good at all for keeping stuff in boxes, keeping stuff safely contained within the allocated boundaries. This is because whilst on the one hand we can say that maybe the element in question is safely contained within the box, contained within the boundary, on the other hand we can also say – with equal validity – that maybe the element in question is not safely contained within the box or boundary. This of course gets us nowhere – it tells us precisely nothing at all about what we wanted to know. Our boundaries have now become terminally leaky, they have become incapable of safely containing anything, and as a result the proud ship of logic is going to sink, with startling rapidity, in the treacherous seas of uncertainty…
Thus, whilst the universe appears to be determinate (definable and measurable) on the outside, careful investigation reveals it to be indeterminate on the inside, or – to put this another way – to be unambiguously defined on one level of description, but bewilderingly undefined when we start tuning in to the finer level of things. Much has been said about the ‘strangeness’ of the quantum world, its utter defiance of the laws of everyday common-sense, and such like, but this is only the rational view of things; really, the paradoxicality is simply showing us that whilst the world appears to made out of diverse parts on the outside, on the ‘inside’ – so to speak – it is a unity. Thus whilst there might seem to be such a thing as hard-and-fast boundaries (or partitions) on a superficial level, this differentiation gives away to the underlying unity, which is the ‘ultimate’ nature of everything. Rationally-speaking, this might seem to be terribly perplexing and confusing, but from an intuitive point of view there is nothing confusing here at all. What is so confusing or strange about the proposition that all the apparently diverse and separate elements that we come across in the world ultimately constitute a Whole?
There is another way in which superficial structuration can be said to give way to a deeper level of ‘indeterminacy’ (or ‘structurelessness’) and that is in the formatting of space and time by the basic framework suggested by the Planck distance and the Planck time. The Planck distance – which is understood to be the smallest measurable length – is said to be close to 1.6 x 10 -35 meters, whilst the Planck time – the smallest measurable interval of time – is given as roughly 10-43 seconds. These two constants, then (the Planck distance and the Planck length) can be said to constitute a lower limit of resolution with regard to the world of the quantifiable, the world of the measurable.
Thus, if we rack down through all the degrees of magnification until we reach the limit of resolution for space and time, then beyond this limit we come to unformatted space, which according to our current level of knowledge is a region we are not able to say anything about since all our models break down at this point. Our models are quantitative, and so when ‘quantity’ ceases to be a meaningful proposition they can be of no further use to us. But whilst mathematical physics cannot say anything about what lies beyond the limits of the space-time continuum, mythology can. The only problem is that we are far too sophisticated these days to bother about anything as unscientific and irrational as mythology– we certainly don’t think we can gain any important insights about the nature of the ultimate reality from it.
One mythological motif that comes to mind when we wonder what might lie beyond the resolvable limits of the matrix of space-time is the ‘smaller than small and bigger than big’ motif referred to by C.G. Jung in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. In the following passage in which Jung [C.W. 9(1), Par 408] starts off by discussing myths and visions of diminutive creatures such as dwarf princesses, and goblins, and gremlin, and homunculi, and little leaden men, and the like, he explicitly links this paradoxical motif with both the realm of the unconscious mind and the realm of atoms and particles –
…I have often encountered motifs which made me think that the unconscious must be the world of the infinitesimally small. Such an idea could be derived rationalistically from the obscure feeling that that in all these visions we are we are dealing with something endopsychic, the inference being that a thing must be exceedingly small in order to fit inside the head. I am no friend of any such “rational” conjectures, though I would not say that they are all beside the mark. It seems to me more probable that this liking for diminutives on the one hand and for superlatives – giants, etc – on the other is connected with the queer uncertainty of spatial and temporal relations in the unconscious. Man’s sense of proportion, his rational conception of big and small, is distinctly anthropomorphic, and it loses its validity not only in the realm of physical phenomena but also in those parts of the collective unconscious beyond the range of the specifically human. The atman is “smaller than small and bigger than big,” he is “the size of a thumb” yet he “encompasses the earth on every side and rules over the ten-finger space.” And of course the Cabiri Goethe says: “little in length / mighty in strength.” In the same way, the archetype of the wise old man is quite tiny, almost imperceptible, and yet possesses a fateful potency, as anyone can see when he gets down to fundamentals. The archetypes have this peculiarity in common with the atomic world, which is demonstrating before our eyes that the more deeply the investigator penetrates into the universe of microphysics the more devastating are the explosive forces he finds enchained there. That the greatest effects come from the smallest causes has become patently clear not only in physics but in the field of psychological research as well. How often in the critical moments of life everything hangs on what appears to be a mere nothing!
The suggestion that elves, fairies, gnomes, goblins and all the ‘little people’ of mythology come not only from the endopsychic nooks and crannies of the unconscious mind but also from the crevasses (or discontinuities) in space-time is not one that is going to go down particularly well in our modern rationalistic age. But these fairy-tale creatures are of course not meant to be seen as literal entities but as living symbols of a reality that is beyond our ability to grasp (as opposed to the ‘literal symbols’ of our quantitative descriptions, which can only mean what they specifically or concretely refer to). According to Jung, the dwarf princesses, the goblins, the homunculi, and all the rest, are symbols for the cosmic (or universal) Self, which in Vedantic literature is known as the atman or Brahman. The motif of ‘smaller than small and bigger than big’ is found in the following description of the atman, taken from the Khandogya-Upanishad –
All this is Brahman. Let a man meditate on that (visible world) as beginning, ending and breathing in it (the Brahman)…
…He is my self within the heart, smaller than a corn of rice, smaller than a corn of barley, smaller than a mustard seed, smaller than a canary seed or the kernel of a canary seed. He is also myself within the heart, greater than the earth, greater than the sky, greater than heaven, greater than all these worlds.
This same motif also appears in Luke 13:18-19 in the parable of the mustard seed –
He said, “What is the Kingdom of God like? To what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and put in his own garden. It grew, and became a large tree, and the birds of the sky lodged in its branches.”
The Kingdom of God is spoken of here in the very same terms that Brahman or Universal Self is referred to in the Upanishads. So we can speak of what lies beyond the matrix of space and time in various ways – we can say that it is the Collective Unconscious, we can say that it is the atman or Brahman, the cosmic Self, or we can say that it is the Kingdom of God. We could also say that it is eternity – which is the realm of the immeasurable, the realm with no beginning and no end. This – according to Joseph Campbell – is the world referred to by mythology, rather than the mundane quantifiable world of our common experience. Myth, says Campbell is –
a plane of reference that goes past your mind and into your very being, into your very gut.
In The Power of Myth, Campbell speaks of the classic image of the dancing Hindu deity Shiva – the ‘Lord of the Dance’ – as embodying both realms, the temporal and the timeless –
That’s the dance of the world – the dancer whose dance is the universe and in this hand he has a little drum that goes tick, tick, tick, –that is the drum of time – the tick of time which shuts out eternity and we are enclosed in that –in this hand there is a flame which burns away the veil of time and opens us up to eternity. And in his hair is a skull and a new moon –the death and rebirth at the same moment – the moment of becoming.
What we have here therefore are two radically different views of the self – one limited, prosaic, and founded up the idea of absolute boundaries, the other unlimited, astonishing, and absolutely without any boundaries at all. The self which is hemmed in by boundaries is ‘this and only this’ whilst the unbounded self (the cosmic Self) is Everything – a doorway to the profoundest of mysteries. The curious thing is not that there are these two radically opposed ways of understanding ourselves (the rational-literal versus the intuitive-mythological) but that we unfailingly opt for the former.
Even though we might be quite happy to talk – in a scientific context – about the primacy of fields over particles, the essential insubstantiality of matter, and thus the strictly provisional nature of all so-called ‘things’, we still persist in thinking of ourselves as being discrete, isolated entities. We still have the same old solid, irredeemably ‘thingified’ (or ‘coagulated’) understanding of ourselves and we still see consciousness as a kind of mechanical adjunct of this thingified or coagulated self. Our resistance to simply ‘going along with’ our direct or intuitive perception of ourselves as being a field of consciousness (as opposed to a reified object that possesses the non-innate property of consciousness) is colossal – it as if we would rather carry on being alienated from our own true nature, and being cruelly limited (and therefore essentially miserable), rather than rejoicing in our true unlimited (or all-pervasive) nature. This being the case – as it evidently is – we might wonder what exactly the ‘psychological pay-off’ is for perceiving ourselves exclusively in terms of our closed mental categories. What do we get out of this apparently crappy deal?
One way of looking at the pay-off is simply to say that the whole thing is tautological. The rational mind, because it itself is an abstraction, is only comfortable when dealing with abstractions. Even more to the point, we can say that the rational mind is only comfortable dealing with its own abstractions, its own projections. Given the undeniable fact that we are identified with the categorical mind (which is to say, that we almost always look out at the world via the mediation of this mind) this means that we are only comfortable when dealing with abstractions. Inevitably, therefore, it suits us to turn ourselves into mental abstractions, into mere concepts; otherwise, we would be putting ourselves in a very uncomfortable situation – the situation of being solidly identified with the rational mind and yet having to deal at the same time with the uncontained, unlimited nature of our own true nature. The thinking mind deals only with its own categories of thought, and so if we want to believe in the world created by thought then we can’t have anything in it that isn’t the product of thought. There is no way around this; that is the nature of the deal – we either take it or we leave it…
The world created by thought is an ontologically secure world. It is a world which has the property of being able to provide us with that most precious of commodities, ontological security. Ontological security means that we have a solid, unchanging and definite basis upon which to conduct our lives; at the same time it also means that we have a solid, unchanging and definite basis with which to understand ourselves. Seeing ourselves as solid unquestionable objects in a world made up of solid, unquestionable objects means that we can have the reassurance of conceptually ‘grabbing hold’ of ourselves, along with the reassurance of being able to conceptually grab hold of everything else. Everything is what I think it is, what I say it is, what the system of thought says it is, and in this fundamentally unchallenging situation there is a tremendous sense of security (albeit one that is ultimately misleading). On the other hand, if we were to allow ourselves to sink into the state of ‘being one with the field of consciousness’ then this would be highly uncomfortable from the point of view of the rational mind since there would be absolutely nothing at all for it to grab onto. And if there is absolutely nothing for the rational mind to grab onto, then this spells the end – the dissolution, the death – of that grasping rational mind…
To experience oneself as an all-pervasive field of consciousness, without any edges, as a universal field that is shared with everything and everyone (since if the field of consciousness has no edges then there can clearly only be one of it) is as we have said an experience that is both extraordinarily profound and extraordinarily mysterious. This is the experience of partaking in a state of harmony so harmonious that nothing can break it. If the state of harmony were to comment upon itself (i.e. look at itself and then say something pertinent about itself) then this self-commentary would necessarily constitute a break in the harmony because making definite statements about the harmony is leave the harmony. The only way to comment on the harmony is to get outside it, and then of course because our viewpoint is an alienated (or abstracted) one we are no longer in touch with that ineffable harmoniousness – we are merely conceptualizing it from a fundamentally disconnected position.
The unitary experience is so profound that – as Krishnamurti states – it can no longer really be termed ‘an experience’ since there can obviously be no such thing as an experience without ‘an experiencer’ and there is no experiencer of the field of consciousness. There is no ‘one who experiences’ since the existence of a separate experiencer – like that of a separate commentator – would constitute a break in the unity. It is not really possible to get any sort of a handle on this experience of unity in which the experiencer himself (or herself) does not exist, and this is precisely why the rational mind wants nothing to do with it. From the point of view of the grasping, knowing, conceptualizing, commentating mind this state of affairs is infinitely disagreeable since the one thing it needs to do in order to exist (i.e. say something about reality) it cannot do. The rational mind is quintessentially a BREAK in harmony, so clearly there is no possibility of it relating us back to the ultimately harmonious situation of unbroken (or undivided) consciousness.
Rationality only ever relates to (or believes in) its own categorizations, its own rationalizations, of the world – this is what rationality does and we cannot expect anything else from it. We have therefore two ‘choices’, two roads that we can go down. On the one hand we have the choice of opting for the security (or satisfaction) of having the whole world neatly accounted for in terms of the mind’s registry of concepts and categories and being thoroughly alienated from our own true nature at the same time, and on the other hand we have the choice of giving up on the possibility of having any sort of ontological security (i.e. the satisfaction of being able to say what things definitely are) and, instead, tuning into the extraordinarily profound and mysterious ‘experience’ of being who we actually are – even if we can’t rationalize it.
If we ask advice from the rational mind we know of course beyond any shadow of doubt which side of the argument it will come out in favour of!
The rational mind is however fundamentally insane when left to its own devices since in its all-consuming search for precision it necessarily shrinks the world down and down until there is virtually nothing left in it. This is like a jealous man who in his pathological need to control everything about his partner ends up destroying her. The implicit logic behind this trade-off is that obtaining the definitive viewpoint on reality is so important that it is worth any sacrifice – the resultant reduction ad absurdum inevitably leads to the point where we know ‘absolutely everything about nothing at all’, where we have a definitive understanding of an empty abstraction, where we are the ‘undisputed master of a null domain’.
This is (needless to say) the ‘wrong type’ of smallness – it is the smallness of the dry pedant, the smallness of the petty-minded hair-splitter, the smallness of the bureaucrat, the smallness of the obsessive. It is the smallness of the insane rational mind.
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.