Author: Martin Morrison
An unquenchable thirst for knowledge
“Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” are possibly the two oldest questions that human beings have ever asked. We have been grappling with life, the universe and everything almost since the beginning of our time.
Our hunger to understand the movements of the planets, the changes of the seasons and whether or not the body and soul are one or two separate entities are just some of the questions that have kept scientists, philosophers and mystics busy researching, experimenting, discussing and debating.
What is knowledge?
“I think. Therefore, I am.” Right? If it’s good enough for Descartes, it’s good enough for me. Sometimes we are adamant we know something, but we can’t prove it to anybody else. We have dreams that seem so real while we are in them, but no trace of them remains once we have woken up. Does that mean dreams are not true? Surely, they represent some kind of truth. What is true is that we experience them.
The scientific method has brought us a long way. Not only have we gained greater understanding of the way the world is, we have learnt to harness its forces and to create all kinds of things. But in the end, the answers we gain from our scientific endeavours only lead to more questions. And that’s where we go full circle. We end up back where we started: who am I, and why am I here?
At the centre of the big questions is consciousness. We cannot see consciousness, and yet we are conscious. We cannot see other people’s consciousness, but they can share their experiences. Therefore, whereas any serious discussion around the nature of gravity or heat or energy will revolve around the things we can observe – the apple falling from the tree, water coming to the boil, or steam driving a turbine – any proper conversation about consciousness needs to be concerned with experience.
One collective consciousness, many individual souls or none of the above?
This is a key question. When we hear the language of spiritualists and many of the world’s religions, there is an assumption that each of us is a self-contained unit of consciousness, a soul, which is accountable for its actions. However, when we try to pin down the self, we come across obstacles.
Our bodies are in a constant state of change and eventually all bodies die, so clearly, none of us can say we are the body. Likewise, our minds can be changed significantly because of life events that have a major impact on our psyche or because of brain injury. Head injuries often bring about profound changes in personality. So, it is fair to say we are not the mind.
If we are not the mind and we are not the body, what are we?
Practitioners of meditation often report feelings of being part of something much bigger than themselves while they are meditating and of feeling more connected and in harmony with other living beings after a meditation session. Buddhists speak of a state of no-mind, a purer state of awareness which transcends our thoughts, memories, habits and emotions. And they speak of a concept of no-self – again pointing to a state of being aware without being attached to any particular sense of identity.
Biologists tell us that consciousness is a phenomenon which arises from brain activity, that when the brain dies, so does consciousness – there is no separate soul that inhabits the body or moves on after the body’s death. Advocates of artificial intelligence believe that programming will advance to the level that machines will develop consciousness.
Human experience: spirits, mediums and psychics
Human experience is the stuff of consciousness. If we are to explore the nature of consciousness, then we need to look at experience. Those who support the idea of individual souls will point to well-documented psychic phenomena as evidence.
While the majority of stories about ghosts, poltergeists, mediums and psychics are usually easy to pull apart, there are isolated yet profound exceptions that leave even the most cynical scientists scratching their heads and wondering what’s gone on. Therefore, for the sake of discussion, let’s suppose that some of these incidents are genuine.
How would we explain some of the more mystical psychic experiences within the wider context of consciousness, and do these phenomena lead us to conclude that the psychical world comprises countless individual souls or are we all reflections of one collective consciousness?
Can a cloth cap have a ghost?
Many reports of spirits include beings from another time or place being fully clothed or having other objects with them such as walking sticks or cloth caps, and some even report seeing other aspects of the ghost’s environment coming through – horse and cart, steam trains or other indications of bygone days. How can we explain this?
One explanation is that we are getting a glimpse of a parallel universe in another dimension. That possibility leads to a completely different discussion. Another explanation, of course, is that the vision is solely in the mind of the beholder and is nothing more than a reflection of their own imagination.
If we explore the possibility that we are indeed witnessing the spirit of another being, we get into difficulties. Remember, our bodies are constantly changing from birth until death, our hair is dead and so are our nails, the clothes we wear are dead and so is much of our surroundings. Surely, if we see a spirit, it is going to be something that transcends the body - a shining light, perhaps. Hair can’t have a ghost. Nails can’t have a ghost. And how would you explain the spirit of a cloth cap?
How do we explain psychic phenomena? There is no measurable energy transfer between the psychic individual and the person whose mind they are reading, so it is hard to know what is actually taking place.
Most people have come across examples of stunning mediumship that are difficult to explain away or dismiss as fraudulent. How do these fit in with the concept of consciousness? What are the implications of a collective consciousness, and how can this kind of model explain the kinds of psychic phenomena we hear about?
Before we delve into those questions, let’s explore the possible nature of the collective consciousness.
The collective consciousness
Once we go along with the idea of a collective consciousness, an entity which encompasses every living being throughout space – and perhaps everything else as well – it is possible to also consider the collective consciousness as stretching throughout time as well. Is consciousness ubiquitous?
How does consciousness interact with the material world?
If we imagine the collective consciousness as being a huge, ubiquitous blob of jelly that we can’t see, every living being can be seen as a vessel for consciousness to occupy. Each and every one of us are perception vehicles to allow this consciousness to experience. The jelly is within our bodies from the day we are born, and it leaves our bodies when we die.
Perception and consciousness are separate entities. It is easy to see that a particle has no perception in the sense that we do, but does that mean it has no awareness? On face value, scientists may dismiss that idea as laughable, and yet there is so much about the material world that is unexplained, especially at the quantum level.
Scientists are able to observe behaviours at the cosmic, micro and sub-atomic levels and they are able to determine universal laws. Who or what sets those laws? How does an object “know” how to behave according to those laws?
These might sound like insane questions, but science really doesn’t touch the “why” any more than saying “because God says so”. Explaining what gravity looks like in terms of the behaviour of matter does not explain why the phenomenon exists.
If we accept that we cannot see the laws of physics or why they exist, that we can only see how the observable universe behaves BECAUSE of them, we can’t dismiss the possibility that universal consciousness is the missing link, the “why”.
As we come closer to understanding what consciousness is, will the answers that we find bring us closer to understanding some kind of truth that brings everything together, a “God”, of which we are all a part?
Panpsychism, the idea that consciousness is universal - within every single cell, molecule, atom and sub-atomic particle - is one which is capturing the imagination of many scientists and philosophers, and it’s gaining momentum. David Chalmers, for example, talks about the plausibility of such a theory in this TED talk.
Consciousness: connecting time and space
If consciousness really is this ubiquitous presence that exists within me, you, everyone who has ever lived and will live, and all matter, then that means we are all connected, and that possibility has profound implications. Could consciousness be a gateway to allow any one of us to be able to view the world through the eyes of someone else – from another time or place?
Imagine taking your attention inwards to the very core of your being, withdrawing from what your senses perceive from the outside world, withdrawing from the sense of self and all the thoughts and feelings connected with “I”, so that you become more aware of the global consciousness we are all part of. From there, you could take your awareness to another vehicle – another living being.
Replays of perception
Being able to see through the eyes of other people, even those from a different place in space and time, gives us another way of understanding the appearance of ghosts. It is not the ghost of Billy Smythe, who lived in 1766, that we see walking down Elm Street on a Saturday night. What we are able to see is the perspective of someone else who observed Billy Smythe walking past them in 1766. We are seeing a replay of someone else’s perception, an echo.
We can only speculate as to why that person, the original viewer of Billy Smythe, would be such an effective vehicle for us to tune into. Perhaps they were particularly intuitive and in touch with the collective consciousness. Maybe they were lifelong meditators. What if they were very young or near death – old or seriously ill, perhaps? Might that make them more likely to act as a channel for others to see through their eyes?
Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) and Outer-Body Experiences (OBEs)
Throughout history and across many cultures, humans have spoken about other worlds such as heaven and hell. We see these places described in vivid detail in religious stories, myths and fantasy fiction. Their prevalence suggests that they are part of the shared experience of humankind. They are embedded within our collective psyche.
In recent years, scientists have started to pay closer attention to what are known as near-death experiences (NDEs) and outer-body experiences (OBEs). These areas had only really been covered by mystics in the past. The Tibetan Book of The Dead, which is based on the writings of guru Padmasambhava from around 1200 years ago but was probably compiled around 700 years ago, gives a detailed description of the worlds that exist between death and rebirth. The ideas shared in this book were inspired by the experiences of Tibetan Buddhist monks in meditation.
More recently, Dr Penny Sartori’s The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences looks deeply at NDEs and OBEs, what these experiences tend to look like, who is likely to experience them, how these people are affected by them and what we can learn about living. Some of the discoveries that have been made are quite extraordinary.
People who have experienced NDEs often come away from the situation with a more cosmic perspective of life, enhanced intuition and even psychic abilities, the power to heal, no fear of death and a stronger feeling of being connected to the whole universe. Other strange phenomena include changes to the electromagnetic fields with many NDErs finding that electrical devices malfunction around them, particularly watches! NDEers reportedly act as transmitters for other signals – i.e. the presence of some NDEers enables televisions, radios and other devices to receive signals in places where they would usually struggle to pick up anything.
Children also experience NDEs. Childhood NDEs are less likely to include cultural references – such as important figures from their family’s religion – and sometimes when they regain consciousness, they upset family and friends by asking awkward questions or reporting an experience which contradicts the religious beliefs of their peers.
Madeleine Black and the mystery monk
In Madeleine Black’s book, Unbroken, an honest and courageous account of how she came to terms with being gang raped as a 13-year-old, she explains that the events of that night were so traumatic that she experienced an outer-body experience (OBE). During Madeleine’s OBE, as she looked upon her own body going through the ordeal, she witnessed a Buddhist monk sitting next to her.
Whether or not the monk was there, was some kind of projection of a real Buddhist’s astral form or a figment of Madeleine’s own imagination during a traumatic episode is not important. What is significant is that when Madeleine visited a medium many years later, the spiritualist not only described what had happened to Madeleine in great detail, she also mentioned the presence of the monk!
It seems as though there two worlds co-existing in parallel, which interact with each other in a way we don’t understand. On the one hand, we have the material world, which includes all living beings, and on the other hand we have the world of universal consciousness.
Consciousness might be the driving force behind the laws of physics that we know about and the ones we have not discovered yet. It represents that part of this universe that scientists cannot observe…yet. Until now, science has taken a stance that consciousness is a product of life, but that dismisses the most important data that we have about consciousness – human experience.
Perhaps it is time to consider the opposite stance: life is a product of consciousness.
Just as consciousness is arguably the driving force that makes the material world behave as it does, on the cosmic, micro and sub-atomic levels, might it also be responsible for the existence of life. Life form provide consciousness with vehicles to channel awareness and engage, interact and feel – to experience. That experience comes at a cost: mortality and suffering.
Science has always dismissed the models of God provided by religions and mystics. Understanding consciousness could be the area where science and mysticism come together and agree on the true nature of God itself.
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