WHAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS?

Consciousness as an emerging sense of self-awareness
Consciousness as an emerging sense of self-awareness

What is consciousness? At Mazlow, our focus is on human needs. Perhaps the greatest need of all is the need to know ourselves deeply. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Understanding consciousness may provide the answer to these questions.

In this blog, we propose a theory of consciousness that has not been deeply explored. Mainstream theories focus on the brain or even on quantum mechanics. Our approach is different – we focus on insights from spiritual experiences to guide us. We call our approach the dual mind theory of consciousness. Enjoy!

INSIGHTS FROM SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCES

Near Death Experiencers moving into the light
Near Death Experiencers moving into the light

There are many ways to go about building a theory of consciousness. Some approach it from the teachings of traditional religion. Others look to philosophy – including trying to address the hard problem of consciousness. Our approach is to look at first hand spiritual experiences. We do so because our study of such experiences has convinced us that there are remarkable parallels binding such experiences. We will consider near death experiences, meditative experiences, and psychedelic experiences. 

Near Death Experiences

Regarding near death experiences, many experiences have noted that an aspect of themselves separates from the body. From an out of body vantage point, they perceive a light that they sometimes merge with. They also note that there is an aspect of themselves that remains in the body – an aspect that is very fearful and animal-like. For example, consider this story from NDE’r Nancy Rynes (see between 11 – 18 minute mark) – “…I am observing the accident from outside the accident while at the same time, there is a part of me still in my body….that part of me that was outside was very calm and peaceful and loving….but then there was the human level…it was all about fear and survival…”

Meditative experiences

Consider next meditative experiences. When an experienced meditator focuses his or her attention on something that person becomes an observer of whatever phenomenon he or she is paying attention to. For example, in breath meditation, a meditator focuses on his or her breath. An aspect of the meditator then becomes an observer of the breath, while the breath becomes the phenomenon that is observed. There is a split in mentality similar to what NDEr Nancy Rynes experienced, although not as dramatic.

Psychedelic experiences

Finally, let us look at psychedelic experiences. During deep psychedelic trips, a psychonaut may experience what is called an ego dissolution – a state of being where the journeyer’s ordinary level of identity dissolves into a more universal one. In this state, the journeyer may feel connected to everyone and everything. This type of experience is quite similar to the NDEr separating from his or her body and the meditator becoming aware of what he or she is focusing on. 

Integration of spiritual experiences

From these experiences, we may develop an understanding of the self and consciousness. These experiences seem to point to the existence of two distinct but complementary levels of self – a local identity and a universal one. We propose that these two levels are opposite but complementary aspects of a self that is in a constant state of creation.

DUAL MIND THEORY OF CONSCIOUSNESS

Yin Yang symbol as a representation of pure duality, which is what consciousness may be
Yin Yang symbol as a representation of pure duality, which is what consciousness may be

As noted above, spiritual experiences seem to point that there are two distinct levels of self – an observer mind and the phenomenon that is being observed. You can try a simple experiment to see this for yourself. Place your attention on your heart and begin to count your heartbeats. Which part of you is counting the beats and which part of you are the beats themselves? There is a mental split going on that we can generalize to develop a theory of consciousness. 

We posit that what we think of as the self or consciousness is actually two distinct but complementary phenomena. We can call this the dual mind theory of consciousness. One aspect is the observer mind, which manifests when we focus our attention on some stimuli, either external or internal. It can also manifest during profound spiritual experiences, as noted above. The other aspect is what the observer mind is observing. This is our default state of consciousness – the state of mind we are ordinarily used to. In this state, there is little to no awareness present, just our automatic thoughts and sensations. We mostly experience it as the running commentary that is going on in our heads. 

So if there are two distinct mental phenomena going on – an observer mind and our ordinary default state of consciousness – why do we not perceive our mental experience dually? Why does it seem like only one thing? We believe the answer is because the observer mind is just starting to emerge evolutionarily. Previously, it was a latent aspect of our mentality. This growing capacity of self-awareness will, in our view, be a healing force in this world.

THE OBSERVER MIND MAY HAVE CAUSAL INFLUENCE OVER WHAT IT IS OBSERVING

The observer mind may be able to influence what it is observing, including the brain itself
The observer mind may be able to influence what it is observing, including the brain itself

You may be wondering whether this is just an interesting theory, or whether there is any practical application. In fact, we think that many phenomena can be explained using this observer – observed mind pair. We present one below. 

Consider the idea that meditators can change the structure of their brain through intentional meditative practice. That this is happening has been well-documented. What hasn’t been explained thoroughly is how this is happening. If we consider that there is an observer mind that can separate from the phenomena that is being observed, we may have an answer. During meditative practice, the observer mind becomes active, and is able to exert influence over the structure of the brain, causing the brain to change in beneficial ways. In other words, the observer mind can both observe and causally influence the brain. Thus mind may really be able to influence matter. 

If this is so, it opens up an entirely new avenue to understanding ourselves and our purpose for being here. Through intentional practice, we may be able to exert positive change to not only ourselves, but perhaps the external world as well. This is not ordinarily possible when we are at the mercy of automatic mental processes. It requires the emergence of the observer mind.

CONCLUSION

Accessing the observer mind during meditation
Accessing the observer mind during meditation

In summary, we propose that consciousness is actually two complementary phenomena – an observer mind and what is being observed. Thus consciousness is actually a dual phenomena. Currently, the observer mind is mostly latent, but may be under evolutionary selection pressure. We will be discussing this and other implications of our view in future blogs. 

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