Becoming Conscious

We can learn from the Buddha how to cultivate a clear and conscious mind, says Eric Harrison.

We can learn from the Buddha how to cultivate a clear and conscious mind, says Eric Harrison.

Consciousness is a peculiar thing. During the day, our minds are awake and conscious. The lights are on and we feel in control. At night, the lights go out. We are asleep and oblivious, and so out of control we don't even notice it is happening.

Furthermore, consciousness is not just an on-off mechanism: it seems to operate by a dimmer switch. Sometimes our minds are bright and clear, and capable of tackling any problem. At other times we can feel so dull and foggy that doing the dishes is a major challenge. What is more, someone else seems to have their hand on the dimmer switch. We usually have little control over how bright or dull our mind feels on a particular day, or at a particular hour.

To make matters worse, our satisfaction in life seems to ultimately depend, not on what we do or own, but on how bright or dull our minds are. A bright mind can find pleasure in anything. In fact, it is its own pleasure. A dull mind, on the other hand, is always struggling to get a grip on anything. It is a common misery of old age to be wealthy but unable to enjoy it.

For this reason, "cultivating the mind" is often regarded as the only reliable source of happiness. Philosophers, religious teachers and holistic writers understand it differently, but they do agree on one thing: a mind trained to be as clear, lucid and intelligent as possible is an immense asset. We can't depend forever on the vagaries of wealth or prestige or health or the affections of others if we want to be happy.

Cultivating the mind all comes down to choosing where to direct our attention. All day long, we make thousands of choices about what to do and what to think about. Some decisions drag us down and others refresh us. Sometimes we consciously choose our thoughts and actions. At other times, they choose us. Virtually none of those choices, however, is effect-neutral.

In fact, we can safely make most of our daily choices on automatic pilot. We don't necessarily decide to get dressed and go to work, we just do it. Our daily routines and responses are usually quite healthy, and don't require more conscious thought.

But many situations are ambiguous, and we need to give them more attention for good outcomes. We can choose to do what is good for us, and resist the alternatives, or we can chase distractions. We can try to be as conscious and self directed as possible, or we can puddle along in a mental fog, reacting automatically to stimuli and events while hoping for the best.

While we may agree that our quality of mind is important, we tend to assume that we are far more alert and in control than we actually are. If I ask you, "Right now, are you conscious?", you would undoubtedly reply "Yes", and that would be the correct answer. The question, as questions do, would have brought you into full self awareness at that moment.

But were you fully conscious a minute or an hour ago? Can you remember anything of what you were doing then? And if you can, do you think that you were fully conscious, monitoring what you were doing as the master of your fate? Or were you operating on automatic pilot with your mind somewhere else?

In general, we assume we are more conscious that we actually are, if only because we don't notice the vast swathes of time when we are operating automatically. Nor, if semiconsciousness is the best we ever manage, do we necessarily realise how inferior that is to full consciousness.

Consciousness is always on a sliding scale. In fact, it slides up and down across many scales. We slide from sleep to wakefulness back to sleep each day. We can blink in and out of awareness within seconds. Some days we are hyper alert and some days we feel barely alive. Occasionally, we have bursts of illumination that outshine the heavens, and at other times we are head down in a swamp.

Full human consciousness is also a very late development in evolutionary terms. A sea slug is smart enough to learn and develop memories, but it is has far less mental capacity than us. Similarly, there are good reasons for arguing that a lizard is less conscious than a cat, a cat is less conscious than a monkey, and a monkey is less conscious than a human. In fact, some brain scientists regard neural complexity alone, and the consequent need to choose between options, as a prerequisite for full consciousness.

The primitive forms of brain activity and behaviour that we find in slugs and monkeys still operate within us. That automatic circuitry still supports our uniquely human cleverness. It occupies far more of the real estate in the back, sides and centre of the brain than our uniquely human outcrops in the frontal lobes. Human consciousness developed out of primeval unconsciousness, relies on it and easily slides in and out of it.

Nor can we say that all human beings are fully conscious. They just have the capacity for it. A baby is fully alive, but it is still less conscious than an adult. It takes over 20 years for the brain, and all the cognitive functions that depend on it, to mature. Furthermore, some people fail to develop completely - prisons are full of them - and others lose whatever capacity they achieve through drugs, illness or disinclination.

A cat is definitely conscious. Humans, though, have a kind of meta-consciousness: we can be conscious and we know it. A cat sees. I also see, but I know that I see, and how I see, and how what I see affects me, and how to change the quality of seeing.

A cat operates largely via a stimulus-response arc. I have a much vaster array of memories, associations, values and possible responses to modulate my behaviour. This higher order mental complexity gives me choices that a cat does not have.

Our conscious thoughts emerge from, and sink back into, a dense substrate of semiautomatic and unconscious mental processes. Brain scientists call these "cognitive networks" and "action schemas" (plans), and can link many of them to uniquely interconnected groups of brain cells and regions. When we think about x, deliberately or automatically, the cognitive network related to x gets excited and gobbles up glucose and oxygen to fuel its activity. This is what a thought is. And it all changes to different networks when we think about y or z.

As a rule of thumb, we can assume that we are usually processing 10-20 thoughts simultaneously at any time. We think at random about the day's events, both consciously and unconsciously, regardless of what is happening on the surface of the mind. This is our normal default state of semiautomatic thinking. It actually becomes more active when we rest or fall asleep, probably because there is less interference from sensory input at those times.

There is a simple way of testing if you are fully conscious or running on automatic. At random during the day, just ask yourself, "What am I thinking about?" If you are honest, you will often find that either you don't know (because the thought was too weak), or that the thought was running automatically, without much conscious input from you.

In brief, you can regard yourself as fully conscious when you can say with conviction: "This is what I am doing and I know it. This is what I am thinking. This is what I am feeling. At this moment." Full awareness also gives you a sense of being an observer, grounded in your body and partially detached from what you are observing.

This meta-consciousness has enormous advantages. It means you can hold a thought, feeling or sensation for much longer than usual. This continuity of attention illuminates detail that was absent at first, and embeds it in a rich body of associations and memories. This leads to clear understanding, which means you can accurately assess its value and usefulness. You now have the essential data that you need to choose an intelligent response, or modify an existing one, for the best outcome.

Meta-consciousness is particularly valuable when we have to make choices. In fact, nothing is more likely to make us alert and focused than a need to choose between conflicting options. In other words, clear consciousness sees the situation accurately, and steers the kind of goal directed behaviour which is the ultimate purpose of thought. The cat is just not in this kind of ballpark.

Given that we have so little control over how conscious we are, is it therefore possible to develop it, or any other positive state of mind?

The Buddha thought so, and his formula still works. It goes like this:

Notice repeatedly when your mind is, and is not, clear. Notice how that clarity comes and goes. Notice what precedes that clarity, and discover its causes. Also notice what undermines it. Then systematically develop the causes, even if they seem as mundane as adequate sleep and a good diet. And avoid what undermines it, even if it seems as harmless as gossip or surfing the Internet. There is no doubt that this simple plan can make us immensely more conscious and capable of self direction than we are.

Eric Harrison has been running the Perth Meditation Centre since 1987