“I know what I know. I’ll sing what I’ve said. We come and we go. That’s a thing that I keep in the back of my head.”
– Paul Simon
Looking back at my life, I can’t remember having had any experience that took place outside the realm of my own body-centered, me-centered perspective. I can’t even fathom the possibility of having an experience outside the realm of my own awareness. While I have been alive, awake and conscious, everything I’ve seen, felt, heard, touched, tasted and thought, I’ve experienced only in my own awareness. Maybe I exist, and maybe the world exists. All I know for sure is that I experience everything in my conscious mind. My mind experiences senses, thoughts and feelings, and then it labels those things as self and world. I experience life always and only in the field of my own consciousness.
I was knocked unconscious once after hitting my head on the ground. I remember falling, and I remember waking up, but I don’t remember the unconscious moments. Several times, I’ve hyperventilated doing breathing exercises, and fallen unconscious. Similarly, after those experiences, I don’t remember anything about the time that I was unconscious. I was anesthetized once to have my wisdom teeth removed. I remember the smiling doctor, and then I woke up in the car in the parking lot of a drug store. My mother was inside getting my prescription pain medication. In every case that I have ever been unconscious, whether I’ve been knocked out, passed out or medicated, I have no memory of the periods of time that I was unconscious. When I’m unconscious, I cease having experiences. For me, no consciousness equals no experience.
When I’m asleep, sometimes I am completely unconscious, in which case I experience nothing and have no memory of it. Sometimes when I am asleep, I dream. Though I’m not aware of my body and my surroundings, I experience dreams as thoughts, emotions, and pseudo-sensory experiences, and it all arises within the same conscious awareness that makes it possible for me to have experiences while I am awake. In my dreams, I am conscious, though mostly only of my dream-thoughts. When I wake up, I can say, “I was dreaming,” and like all of my experiences, my dreaming experiences happen only in realm my own personal awareness.
In addition to my ordinary sense perceptions and thinking activity, I feel a feeling of being me. My sense of self seems to be linked to my body, localized here within my body. When I use the pronoun “I” it evokes a feeling, a sense of being myself within my body, though I can’t precisely identify where my self resides. When I get introspective, I can’t find my sense of self in any particular location. It’s most certainly not in my appendages, because I can easily imagine cutting them off, and not losing my sense of self. When I really think about it, I find that my sense of self is connected with my conscious awareness. When I’m unconscious, I no longer experience a sense of self. When I’m conscious, I feel a sense of self. Again, upon investigation, I find that like all of my other experiences, my experience of self arises only in my conscious awareness.
I don’t experience myself as a consciousness residing within a body, or a body residing within a world. I’ve thought about it, and I recognize that I experience it the other way around – world and self and bodily experience arise within my conscious awareness. It is undeniably true that my experience of self and world have only ever arisen in my mind. The basis of my experience is not the world I perceive, nor the self I feel. The conscious awareness where everything I experience takes place is the basis of all of my experience. All I can conclusively say is that the entirety of my experience has taken place within the realm of my conscious awareness.
I might say, “There is a world, because I see it, and I feel it, etcetera. There are certainly other people in the world, because I interact with them. Also, those other people seem to be interacting with the same world that I am. When my friend touches a tree, I can touch that same tree, and we can agree that it exists.” The problem with that is that my friend, the tree, the world – all of it is taking place within the realm of my conscious awareness. All I can really say is that I am having experiences within the realm of my conscious awareness. I am stuck watching the world through my own eyes, in my own mind. All of the information I have access to comes in in the form of thoughts and senses arising in my conscious awareness. I can never get outside myself to verify my existence or the existence of a world other than that which I experience within the realm of my conscious awareness.
I’m not talking abstractly about the existence or non-existence of the world, and I’m not trying to say that we create the world in our minds. All I am doing is stating the bare naked truth of my own experience. In truth, I cannot talk about the world, only about my experience. I experience seeing, feeling, being, thinking – a vast and ever changing flood of experience saturates my conscious awareness. Every moment that I am conscious, I experience my senses – sight, touch, sound, all of it, flooding my awareness. And every moment that I am conscious, I experience thinking, conceptualization, ideation. All of it without exception arises within and only within the realm of my conscious awareness.
I can also say that so far in my life everything I have ever experienced has been moving and changing. Everything that has ever arisen within the realm of my conscious awareness has been different from that which arose before. The world I experience through my senses is in constant, ceaseless motion. Some things move slowly. I can identify them with labels. I can say, “That thing that is arising in my conscious awareness is what I call a tree,” but I can only say that for a while. I know that it is changing. I know that once it was not a tree, and that someday it will cease to be a tree. I know that it is moving, and that it is never the same tree in any given moment. Nothing is standing still, not even mountains. The world I perceive through my sense perceptions is infinite, ceaselessly unfolding as newness. There has never been a moment of stillness, never anything that has stayed the same.
Likewise, my thoughts and ideas are always in constant motion. Every thought is new, and every thought dissipates quickly. I may, in my head, repeat the same thought again and again, but I can easily see that even if I repeat a thought, I have never repeated it in that moment, in that context. I can’t hold a moment long enough to do the same thing twice within it. Thus, every mental event is new – unfolding in a new context, in a new moment. My conscious awareness is a boundless field in which there arises an ever-changing infinity of thoughts and experiences. My conscious awareness never grows full, and it never rejects that which arises within it. My conscious awareness effortlessly welcomes all that arises within it.
Also, my conscious awareness is never changed by what arises within it. Sure, I have a sense of self, an emotional syndrome that changes, that fluctuates, but that syndrome arises within the infinite and all-welcoming space of my conscious awareness. I may be in a bad mood, but that bad mood merely arises in the unaffected space of my conscious awareness. I may see things and remember them, and in that way sort of hold on to them, and then I can claim that I have been changed by my experiences. But in terms of my conscious awareness, it just goes on being conscious awareness, no matter what arises within it. I am not the person who I used to be, but throughout my ever-changing life, my conscious awareness has remained perfectly clear, perfectly welcoming, and completely frictionless. All of my experiences, no matter what their quality, arise in my conscious awareness, and then move through it, leaving no trace. My conscious awareness is infinite and unstainable, perfectly empty clarity, the fertile soil from which everything arises, into which everything dissipates. That’s all I know.
The same thing must be true for every conscious being. I think that every conscious being has only ever experienced their own conscious awareness, and their conscious awareness is precisely the same as my own. I don’t know which beings are conscious and which ones aren’t, and I don’t really know what exists and what doesn’t, since I’m totally stuck within my own internal experience, but in the case that there are “other” beings, and that those other beings are conscious, then they must also be stuck within their own conscious awareness. Given my experience of the absolutely even and boundless consistency of conscious awareness, I can say with conviction that every conscious being must experience only conscious awareness, and that conscious awareness is infinite and unstainable, perfectly empty clarity, the fertile soil from which everything arises, into which everything dissipates. At least, that’s all anyone ever knows.Photo provided by author.
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