If you’ve ever spent five minutes around Advaita (translation ‘non-duality’, from Advaita Vedanta, a school of Hindu philosophy dating from the 5th century http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nondualism), you’ll have heard people say that your true nature is awareness or consciousness.

What do Advaitans really mean when they talk about “awareness” and “consciousness”? Those words typically refer to something that happens inside the brain but that obviously isn’t what Advaitans mean. So what do they mean?

I remember that when I first started attending Bob’s meetings 25 years ago (sailorbobadamson.com), I struggled to make sense of the terminology. All these years later, I sit in rooms and still see new people still trying to work out what the hell the old timers mean when they say “awareness”, “consciousness” or ” intelligence energy”.

I don’t blame them – it all sounds quite mystical and reminds me of Catholics talking about ‘the holy spirit’.

As mentioned earlier, when most regular people talk about intelligence, awareness and consciousness, they are referring to something that happens in their brains. And yet Advaita tells us that we aren’t the body – so if I’m not the body, and therefore not the brain, how can I be something that happens in the brain? Press most Advaitans on this subject and they will struggle, eventually trying to make the case that the awareness or the consciousness exists prior to and in the absence of the brain.

And then we wonder why the new people get confused. How can something that happens in the brain happen without a brain?

When people stick around Advaita long enough and perform some serious self-enquiry, they eventually end up realizing that they aren’t what they once thought they were and , quite naturally, they want to share what they have learned with others. (By the way, I think this is a bad idea and recommend at least ten years of silence after realisation, but that’s another subject.) They haven’t given it time to really sink in, so they don’t really have their own way of explaining it. They borrow the terminology they learned from their teachers.

Those teachers, of course, borrowed their terminology from their teachers, and so on and so forth, back hundreds of years to some old, uneducated guy (by modern standards) sitting in a hut in India.  This old guy in India knew nothing about the brain or the mind or neuroscience by modern standards. He (or she) tried to explain what he perceived directly about the nature of Self in the best ways and with the best language he had available.

This language has come down to us, hundreds of years later, translated as “awareness” and “consciousness” and “intelligence energy”. However, in Western countries in the 21st century, these words have definitions with which most people are familiar and they are closely associated with the functioning of the brain.

Hundreds of years ago, people didn’t really understand the role of the brain in consciousness. As everyone is aware, for much of human history, people thought that the heart was the centre of emotions and, often, intelligence. We still tell people to “think with the heart” when we want them to get in tune with their emotions.

Neuroscience, however, has made great strides in the last 50 years and we can be pretty confident that it is the brain, not the heart, that is the centre of intelligence, awareness and consciousness (even though how consciousness actually works is still a great scientific puzzle).

The old gurus of India probably didn’t know about the connection between consciousness and the brain. Times have changed and Advaita needs to catch up.

When Advaitans say “everything is awareness” or “you are consciousness”, they are trying to explain that everything in the world that you are aware of, including other people, inanimate objects and, most importantly, your ideas about yourself, appears in your awareness. And what do they mean by “your awareness”?

Words like “awareness” and “consciousness”, when used in Advaita, are synonyms for what cognitive science would call “the subconscious mind” or, even better, to avoid Freudian associations of repressed memories, “the unconscious mind”.

The unconscious mind is the part of our brain that absorbs all of the raw data inputs from the senses. It is noticing everything that is happening in your immediate environment, even if you aren’t consciously aware of it. It is dealing with things that you don’t need to think about consciously.

From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unconscious_cognition):

It has been well established that the unconscious plays a vital role in perception and data analysis. The numerous examples of optical illusions, hallucinations and other tricks that the unconscious brain plays on the conscious brain provide ample evidence of the active role of the unconscious mind during data gathering and analysis. Several experiments have been performed to show that the unconscious brain is able to gather data at a much faster rate than the conscious brain and also that the unconscious brain filters out a great amount of information and can uses this information to influence cognitive decision making processes. 

So the unconscious brain (the operations of the brain that we aren’t conscious of), processes a gazillion data inputs every second. When the brain decides some event is worthy of your attention, it is passed from the unconscious mind through to the conscious mind. That is when it becomes a conscious thought, something of which we are aware.

Here’s an example: when you are driving your car or performing another kind of routine task, you are making tens or hundreds of tiny decisions every moment, most of which you aren’t even consciously aware of – brake, accelerate, indicate, check mirror, look at the speedometer, etc. We can all do these things while having a conversation, listening to an interview on the radio and eating a burger. The unconscious takes over because these functions have been programmed into our brains via repetition over years.

I can have a shower in the morning while thinking about my day’s activities, hardly dwelling at all about what I’m actually doing in the shower. There’s no need to bother my conscious mind with the mundane aspects of washing my body.

When a new human baby is born, its brain has already developed to the stage of performing autonomic functions. Newborns’ brains allow babies to do many things, including breathe, eat, sleep, see, hear, smell, make noise, feel sensations, and recognize the people close to them. But the majority of brain growth and development takes place after birth, especially in the higher brain regions involved in regulating emotions, language, and abstract thought.

When Advaitans use words like “awareness” and “consciousness”, they are referring to the lower functions of the brain. It is the prefrontal cortex, which develops from age 2 – 17, that allows for abstract thought, language and what Advaitans commonly refer to as “the mind”. This is where the ego, a collection of ideas about what and who you are, resides.

What Advaitans refer to as “pure consciousness” is really just sitting in a state where the conscious mind is silent yet the functioning of the unconscious mind remains active. When the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain mostly responsible for planning complex cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision making and moderating social behaviour) is quiet, we are left with the “awareness” or “consciousness” – i.e. the unconscious mind. I would argue that when Advaitans ask “what comes before thought”, they are referring to the lower brain functions, the older part of the brain. What is aware of the thoughts? It is the brain, the unconscious mind. When Advaitans say “it cannot be understood with the mind”, they are partly correct, because the conscious mind, the part of the brain we use to ‘understand’, cannot understand the unconscious mind because it isn’t aware of it. However, what we can understand with the conscious mind is that the conscious mind isn’t the answer, that it has been living under an illusion all your life, that all of the problems you (as a conceptual individual) have are the result of the conscious mind believing in the illusion and that the only solution is to let go of the illusion.

Of course, we can accept, as most Advaitans are happy to do, that consciousness is the primum movens, the first cause, and that it is all there is. There is no brain in which the consciousness appears – the brain, instead, appears inside the consciousness. The consciousness is all there is.

Some people, however, are going to struggle with that. I confess that I’m one of those. All is not lost for those people however.

Let’s accept for the moment that consciousness and awareness are the functioning of the brain. Learning to live in that place of awareness, aware that the world of solid objects and people is merely an illusion of the senses, a series of mental contracts, will bring anyone who tries it to a place of permanent peace.

However if we are left with consciousness being the functioning of the brain, where does that leave us with respect to the central idea of non-duality, i.e. that we are one with the universe (from the latin uni = one. versus = to turn, “turned into one”)?

There are two simple ways of explaining this.

The first is a scientific explanation for what the Advaitans are trying to point towards. When we realise that the entire world that we perceive is being created in our minds – that other people, inanimate objects and, most importantly, our ideas about ourself, are merely mental constructs – then we can say, in a manner, that the entire world appears in our minds (substitute ‘awareness’ or ‘consciousness’ here if you like as they are synonyms). From a scientific perspective, this is totally supportable. Quantum physicists agree that the solid world that are perceived by our senses and then interpreted by our brains is also an illusion. The world we think of as solid is actually made of atoms, which are mostly empty space. They also know that atoms don’t have a hard shell like an egg. Instead, the electrons that orbit the nucleus have a fuzzy perimeter, referred to as a ‘probability wave’. If your eyes were powerful enough to see at a sub-atomic level, and you looked down at your body, you wouldn’t see a separation between you, the air around you, and the floor beneath you. The fuzzy perimeters of the atoms would all blend into one another. In other words, the world of solid matter that we perceive is created in our minds, as they receive a limited amount of data being fed into them by our senses. It is an illusion created by our minds and “we” – the independent entities we think ourselves to be – are also part of that illusion. Ipso facto – everything in the world is the product of your mind. It is all one consciousness, one awareness, manufactured by the one mind – and even the idea of that mind is contained in the consciousness, the ‘you’ that you think you are.

The second way of explaining the oneness is an extension of the first and might be more satisfying to people who cannot accept that the world perceived (albeit incorrectly) by our senses isn’t real at some level and is somehow external to “me”.

Atoms are made of sub-atomic particles, such as protons, neutrons and electrons. Quantum physicists have discovered that all sub-atomic particles spend most of the time existing as probability waves – not actually particles as we usually think of them. A probability wave literally exists everywhere in universe simultaneously until perceived. If the stuff you are made of exists everywhere in the universe simultaneously, doesn’t that mean you are the universe?

The “you” that you think you are, is obviously an illusion. And yet, you are. As Descartes pithily framed it – “I think, therefore I am”. If you didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be able to say “I don’t exist.”