This episode comes out of some responses I received to a recent episode entitled, “What does nondual awareness feel like?” I realized that some people confuse nondual awareness and consciousness. They mistake what Jesus called the Kingdom of God - and what others call spiritual awakening or enlightenment - for a state of consciousness. I want to address this subject in this episode. I am going to explore the difference between consciousness, cosmic consciousness, nondual awareness and Nondual Reality.
This episode comes out of some responses I received to a recent episode entitled, “What does nondual awareness feel like?” I realized that some people confuse nondual awareness and consciousness. They mistake what Jesus called the Kingdom of God - and what others call spiritual awakening or enlightenment - for a state of consciousness. I want to address this subject in this episode. I am going to explore the difference and the relationship between consciousness and nondual awareness and Nondual Reality.
As soon as I say this, I wonder if it is possible to talk about this in any meaningful way that is not misleading. Making distinctions is like this is an exercise in duality. Consciousness and nondual awareness are actually one in nondual reality. So in talking about the difference, I am using ideas and language, trying to make distinctions that might seem helpful to the mind, but are not ultimately real. Yet it seems like it may be helpful to try. It is important for people to realize that spiritual awakening is not about consciousness. Nondual Awareness is not what is sometimes called cosmic consciousness.
Cosmic consciousness, like what Richard Bucke explored in his 1901 book by that name, is still consciousness. If you have had the experience of cosmic consciousness then you know how powerful that experience is. You realize at the time that there is one Consciousness, and our individual consciousness is part of this one consciousness. All beings share one Consciousness, from the smallest living organism to complex animals. This one cosmic consciousness is that some people mean by God. But cosmic consciousness is not nondual awareness.
Let me repeat what I said in that previous episode. Consciousness of all types is a function of the brain and nervous system. Most religious people do not believe that. Most people in spiritual circles believe that consciousness exists apart from the brain and nervous system. That is certainly true of Christians who believe that individual consciousness exists after death I heaven or hell or purgatory. In nondual circles people believe that we continue forever as cosmic consciousness.
I am not a neuroscientist, so I am obviously not an expert in this field. But everything that I have read connects consciousness intimately to the brain. When the brain is injured in some way through physical trauma or stroke or dementia or other causes it affects consciousness. When the brain is drugged by anesthesia it brings about unconsciousness. Take hallucinogens and it results in altered states of consciousness. It is very clear to me that when the brain is changed chemically or physically it changes consciousness.
Because there is so much scientific evidence that connects consciousness to the brain, it is reasonable to think that consciousness emerges from brain activity. It is true that scientists do not know how it emerges or why consciousness exists. That is called the hard problem of consciousness. But of all the possible theories it seems most reasonable that somehow it emerges from the brain, and does not exist apart from the brain.
To posit the existence of consciousness apart from the brain, there has to be some evidence of disembodied consciousness. I know of no such credible evidence. There is anecdotal evidence of disembodied consciousness based on out-of-body experiences, Near Death Experiences and past life recall, but those can all be explained scientifically and psychologically. As far as we know, individual consciousness does not survive death of the brain.
Why does the brain produce consciousness? I think consciousness emerges in living things because the potential for consciousness is built into the fabric of the universe. One might say that the seed of consciousness is present in all matter and energy, and it blossoms in living organisms through evolution. That would explain various degrees of consciousness from one-celled organisms and plants to more complex animals.
All living things have a degree of consciousness, no matter how elementary. At some point in evolution consciousness went over a threshold into self-consciousness. With human self-consciousness came the awareness of other humans as conscious agents. We perceive other conscious beings – human and animal - as being different from us. That is dualistic consciousness. Humans then theorized there were also unseen agents and called them gods or spirits or angels or demons. That is where animism comes from. Eventually religion developed the idea of one Great Conscious Agent, which became the monotheistic God.
Astronomer Carl Sagan famously said that humans are the universe conscious of itself. When that is experienced - when one experiences oneself as the universe conscious of itself - that is cosmic consciousness. It is a wonderful and powerful spiritual experience. One might call this a mystical experience. But it is still a type of consciousness. This is not awakening or nondual awareness or enlightenment.
That type of cosmic consciousness can come and go. I have had a lot of people tell me that they have had powerful spiritual experiences. Sometimes they call these awakenings. They say that had a powerful experience that changed their life, but then after a period of time they lost it, and they are trying to recover it. That is a sure sign that it is a state of consciousness and not nondual awareness. Nondual awareness does not come and go. Nondual awareness abides permanently. One’s psychological experience and adjustment to it changes, but the nondual awareness is always there. Sometimes in the foreground and sometimes in the background but always there.
What I am saying is that there is a difference between consciousness – even cosmic consciousness – and nondual awareness. Consciousness comes from the brain, and the brain and its consciousness comes from the cosmos. Nondual awareness does not come from the brain of the cosmos. It comes from nondual reality; it comes from Being Itself or the Ground of Being.
Nondual awareness is as different from consciousness as consciousness is from unconsciousness. Nondual awareness is present whether one is conscious or unconscious, whether one is awake or asleep, whether one is dreaming or in dreamless sleep, whether one is under anesthesia or alert, even whether one is dead or alive. Nondual awareness does not die because it is not born. It is immortal.
Consciousness is mortal. Even cosmic consciousness is mortal. Cosmic Consciousness continues as long as there is a cosmos and conscious beings. But one day the cosmos will die, and with it all beings will die and cosmic consciousness will die. Likewise human individual consciousness does not survive death of the human body. It does not go to heaven; it is not reincarnated as an individual soul or spirit.
Such ideas are the ego talking. The ego wants to survive death. For nondual awareness to be born, the ego and all its hopes for continued existence has to die. When the ego has given up all hope of survival, only then eternal life opens up. As Jesus says, when one is born again one sees the Kingdom of God.
When egoic consciousness dies, we wake up to our true nature, which is Being - nondual reality. Awareness as this nondual reality is nondual awareness. Cosmic consciousness is being conscious as the universe aware of itself. Nondual awareness is being aware as nondual reality, which is the source of the universe and consciousness.
This is awakening. This is eternal. Cosmic consciousness is not eternal. It is billions of years old, but it is not eternal. Cosmic consciousness emerges from the cosmos and dies with the cosmos. Nondual awareness is awareness as Being Itself and not dependent upon the cosmos. The cosmos is dependent upon Being or nondual reality.
Now, as far as the difference between nondual awareness and nondual reality is concerned, that is a tougher. I do not know how to draw a line between the two. They seem so completely one that I cannot even make a mental distinction. I suspect that awareness as nondual reality is colored and limited by human consciousness, and that will change at death. Certainly all sense of separateness will cease at death. Beyond that I do not know.
But one thing I know. I am this Reality that produces consciousness and this universe. We are Nondual Reality. And we can be aware as this Ultimate Reality here and now. That I know, and that is enough. This realization is all that matters. This nondual awareness is what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. It was his gospel. This is the gospel I proclaim.