Consciousness and the Pursuit of Fulfillment
Despite our best efforts to understand the cortical structures of the human brain, we still have no idea how consciousness works. How the interaction between atoms inside your brain can give rise to the phenomenon of conscious experiences is a total mystery. This is why it’s so hard to make any objective claim about the material world.
If consciousness is what mediates our actions, then how can we be so sure that reality can exist independent of an observer? We simply do not understand the relationship between consciousness and the material world, which we perceive to be objectively real.
Consciousness is the most important thing in the universe because it is the only place where everything that matters to you can appear. And yet, we’re not even dimly aware of what our minds are doing most of the time. Among all the things that human beings have in common, perhaps nothing is more unique to us than our ability to be lost in thought almost all the time.
Think of how you spent your last hour — would you be able to recall the endless number of thoughts that permeated your consciousness within that time?
The simple answer would be no, because thoughts simply appear and disappear in our minds and the process of mere identification with each thought that arises forms the root cause of most of our psychological suffering. And if you observe carefully, almost all your thoughts are anchored to your sense of self, or the feeling that we call “I”.
Where exactly is this “I”? For people who have not investigated the nature of their minds down this particular path will find it hard to grapple with this concept, but if you were to carefully inspect, where exactly are you at this moment? The feeling that you’re somewhere behind your face, or between your eyes, looking out into the world is itself an appearance in your field of consciousness.
I like to think of consciousness as a room filled with objects. The objects of the room may keep changing but the room itself will not change. A room might have a bed, a table, a chair, or some other furniture that give it an effervescent feel. Now imagine if you spend your whole life thinking the objects in your room are actually the room.
This is how we mostly spend most of our lives. All the thoughts and emotions that we experience in life, whether it’s envy, jealousy, insecurity, sadness, or even happiness and joy, truly have only one place to appear, which is in our conscious experience. And we spend our whole lives forgetting this truth, because no one ever told us where true profundity is to be found.
The Buddhists have always said that the sense of self, or the feeling that we call “I”, is an illusion, and all the suffering that we experience in life is because of our inability to recognize this simple truth.
But how can this be true? How can we all collectively miss such a simple truth? How is it possible that we have all married the contents of consciousness with our current experience and allowed it to dictate our psychological suffering?
To be honest, I don’t know the evolutionary reasons for why our brains evolved to produce one thought after another, but I suspect part of the reason why we continue to needlessly suffer is because meditation is still an esoteric practice. The profound wisdom that can be gained via careful examination of our minds is not something that is taught as part of our education.
Meditation is the only tool I know that can allow you to divorce the contents of your consciousness with your current experience to the point where you are a mere witness of the sensations that arise in your mind. Meditation is the only tool that allows you to experience the intrinsic freedom of consciousness; it’s the only tool that can help you in cultivating a mind that is truly worth having.
Think of the last argument you had with one of your friends, or an insult that you experienced in a group setting, or any situation where you needlessly embarrassed yourself. How often do you replay that event in your mind? If you’re being truly honest, we tend to endlessly torture ourselves over our own actions in the past, cursing ourselves over how we acted, and fruitlessly indulging in what we should have done, or would have done, if only we had the opportunity.
The problem with human beings is that we are constantly looking to be happy and fulfilled in the future, because we don’t believe we have everything that we need to be happy in the present. But when the future actually arrives, we tend to shift our focus to the next thing, which we then believe will bring us happiness. The search keeps going on but seldom does it lead to the kind of self discovery that is truly worth experiencing.
Think of the last time you went for a walk, or sat on a bike, or went on a trip. How long did your conscious awareness of the present moment last before being completely overtaken by thoughts? For how long were you actually able to pay careful attention to your experience? Needless to say, our attention span has plummeted catastrophically.
This is how we continue to suffer. A mind that is untrained is doomed to repeat the same patterns of thought that are at the base of causally compounding our suffering. Everyone you know in life is lost in thought almost all the time, and our inability to pay careful attention to the nature of our minds is at the heart of the issue.
None of what I am saying devalues the importance of thought. Human thought is incredibly valuable. Almost all the material objects that we use in our day to day lives are a direct consequence of our thoughts. Without being able to conceive something in your mind, it would be impossible to build it in its material form.
But being engaged in a form of thought that stretches your imagination and compels you to come up with solutions to complex problems is totally different from being lost in thought, and the distinction is huge. The former can leave you with psychological experiences that are truly rewarding, which is a state we call “flow”, and the latter will simply leave you with a deep sense of insatiability.
To be completely honest with you, I fall prey to the same patterns of thought that cause so much entropy in our consciousness. Paying careful attention to the present moment can be an incredibly difficult thing to do, but the practice of meditation has helped me in recognizing when I’m lost in thought.
It has helped me in stopping my brain from going down on a cascade of negative thoughts, and I couldn’t be any more thankful for it. Meditation has taught me that the present moment is good enough and I don’t have to wait for an imaginary future to feel happy and fulfilled. All that is required is constant practice.
So what are you waiting for?