Chapter 9. Perceiving and conceptualizing

9.1. A review of the physics

What does physics tell us about reality? In Section 1.1, we saw that the existence of any external, objective reality is unverifiable by observation. Furthermore, if the existence of an external, objective reality can never be verified by observation, it can have no effect on any observation. In Chapter 6, we saw that in most interpretations of quantum theory, the world is made up of a series of observations. We shall see in the next section that it is only because thought conceptualizes these observations into objects that they appear as objects to us.

In Chapter 6, we saw that our insistence on an external, objective reality forced us into the quandary of choosing the concept of wavefunction collapse, hidden variables, or many worlds. All of these interpretations are nonlocal. In Copenhagen theory, nonlocality results from nonlocal wavefunction collapse. In many-worlds theory, it results from nonlocal branching. In hidden-variables theory, it results from the nonlocal quantum force.

Hidden variables theory (Section 6.6) is the interpretation that is closest to classical theory because of the presence of classical particles and the absence of consciousness. However, it has a puzzling nonlocal quantum force for which there is no counterpart in classical theory. In many-worlds theory (Section 6.7), consciousness is assumed to cause branching, but how can it do that? In Copenhagen theory (Sections 6.3, 6.4, 6.5), consciousness causes wavefunction collapse, but how does that occur?

In Section 6.5 we saw that the Copenhagen interpretation requires consciousness to be universal as well as nonlocal. We can make the same argument about consciousness in the many-worlds interpretation (Section 6.8) because it causes nonlocal branching. Thus, in these interpretations, there can be no individual consciousnesses--there is only nonlocal universal consciousness.

In Sections 6.10, 6.11, we saw that we can avoid all problems of wavefunction collapse, branching, and nonlocality if we interpret quantum theory subjectively instead of objectively. In this interpretation, because there is no external, objective reality, everything that happens must happen only in the mind. The subjective interpretation is not only free from the problems of collapse, branching, and nonlocality, it is also remarkably similar to the teachings of Advaita and Mahayana Buddhism, which state the following: There are no objects. There is only a series of observations. There is no observer. There is only nonlocal universal consciousness. (In Advaita, nonlocal universal consciousness is called pure Awareness. In Mahayana Buddhism, it is called primordial consciousness, or Buddha-nature.) It is remarkable that physics, which is ostensibly the science of external, objective reality, can tell us so much about subjective reality, and also can be in such agreement with our most profound nondualistic teachings.

In Chapter 7, we saw how Amit Goswami modeled the brain using a quantum part coupled to a classical part. In doing this, he hypothesized the appearance of an objective reality within the context of monistic idealism (an evident self-contradiction). In order to circumvent the nonphysicality of wavefunction collapse in space-time, Goswami's theory assumes that wavefunctions exist in a transcendental realm outside of space-time. But in Section 7.10  we saw that neither wavefunctions nor wavefunction collapse, both being defined in terms of space-time, can exist outside of space-time. Thus, Goswami unintentionally reveals the paradoxical nature of the very transcendental realm that he hypothesized to remove the paradox of wavefunction collapse in space-time!  In addition, no transcendental realm or other form of external reality is verifiable, as we saw in Section 8.2. Nevertheless, the concept of identification, which Goswami attempted to explain, will be essential to our discussion of suffering as we continue in this course.

9.2. What is the perceived?

The Buddha taught that Life and movement are the same thing. On p. 26 of What the Buddha Taught (1959), Walpola Rahula says,

"There is no unmoving mover behind the movement. It is only movement. It is not correct to say that life is moving, but life is movement itself. Life and movement are not two different things. In other words, there is no thinker behind the thought. Thought itself is the thinker. If you remove the thought, there is no thinker to be found."

We shall talk about two different types of processes. Perceiving is the simple appearance of movement in Consciousness. Movement in Consciousness is perceiving itself, and it has no separate parts. On the other hand, thinking, which is included in movement, is the appearance of thoughts. A thought seems to separate part of movement from another part while giving it a name. All thoughts are characterized by name and form, so thinking appears to fragment movement into separate thoughts. A good rule to remember is this: If it seems to be separate from something else, it is nothing but a concept.

All words are concepts, thus all spoken or written communication is conceptual. This entire course is conceptual but it points to what cannot be conceptualized. As an example, we shall distinguish between Consciousness in motion, or phenomenon, and Consciousness-at-rest, or Noumenon (discussed in the next section). These are not real distinctions because all distinctions are nothing but conceptualizations. Consciousness is always undivided.

As we may say that movement (a concept) in Consciousness (another concept) is an appearance (still another concept) in Consciousness, we may also say that the manifest (phenomenon) is an appearance in the Unmanifest (Noumenon).  We can conceptualize further by using the terms, the manifest, the manifestation, phenomenality, and phenomenon almost interchangeably, with slight differences as determined by the context.

A concept can be "external", detected by one or more of the five "external" senses such as hearing or seeing, or "internal" like a thought, feeling, emotion, or sensation.  In Section 1.1, we made a distinction between the concepts of "objective reality" and "subjective reality".  We said that objective reality is external to, and independent of, the mind and can be observed and agreed upon by myself and at least one external observer. Subjective reality is that which exists only if it is observed.  (We also said that certain mental phenomena can be considered to be objective if they can be verified by an external observer.

Question: Why is movement in Consciousness nothing but a concept?

Question: Why is a chair nothing but a concept? An animal? A person? The world? The universe?

Question: In what way is external reality nothing but a concept?

Question: Why is a thought nothing but a concept? A feeling? An emotion? A sensation?

Question: In what way is subjective reality nothing but a concept?

The concept of objective reality rests on the assumption, introduced in Section 1.1, that there exist observers who are external to me, and who can confirm my own observations. From childhood, we grew up without questioning this concept, so it seems very natural to us. But now we shall see that this so-called "objective reality" is no different in principle from "subjective reality" and is not reality at all, but is nothing but a concept. This may begin to make sense if we stop to consider that, not only is objective reality supposed to be external to, and independent of, the mind, but so also is the "external" observer whom I depend on to confirm my own observations of objective reality. However, the external observer who communicates with me is not in fact independent of the mind at all, but is part of subjective reality, i.e., is an image in the mind.

Reality is what is, without conceptualization. However, external reality is only a concept and cannot be proved. Even though it is useful for communication, for health, and for survival, it does not represent Reality, and therefore it will bring suffering if it is taken to be real. Suffering comes because external reality seems to be separate from me, which means that I seem to be separate from it. As long as I identify with a separate, objective me, I will be unable to realize my true nature and I will suffer.

Question: What are some specific ways in which the sense of separation  from the "external" world leads to suffering?

Another problem with defining myself as an object is that all objects change in time, i.e., they are all temporal, so they all appear and disappear in time. Am I willing to accept that I am purely temporal? As we stated above, the concept of objective reality has physical survival value. But it has only passing physical survival value, because everything in "objective reality" comes and goes, and nothing in it survives.

Exercises: Close your eyes and see how perception is never the same from moment to moment.
Now, open your eyes and again see how perception is still never the same from moment to moment.
Finally, see how the mind attempts to create a sense of permanence by forming the concept of separate, stable objects even though perception itself is impermanent.

We have defined "subjective reality" as that which exists only if it is observed, namely, thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations, and perceptions. As discussed above, it is clear that there is no intrinsic difference between subjective reality and the objective reality that we have previously defined, since all "external" observers are only images in mind.  "Objective reality" becomes nothing but an appearance or image in mind just as "subjective reality" is. All mental images come and go, and this is as true of the images of "objective" objects as it is of "subjective" objects.

Question: What are some specific ways in which any sense of separation at all leads to suffering?

Questions: Is there anything in your mind or body that you can be sure exists whether or not you are observing it? Is there anything in your mind or body that does not change? Is there anything in your mind or body that you can predict with certainty? Is there anything at all that you can be certain of?

The world in my mind is the only world that I can perceive directly. All bodies and other objects in this world are nothing but images in my mind. (The concept that there are no other minds than mine is a statement of solipsism, first proposed by the French philosopher, René Descartes, 1596 - 1650, see Section 4.3.) Therefore, if I accept the concept that other minds contain their own individual worlds, there are as many worlds as there are minds. 

On page 96 of The Wisdom of Nisargadatta (1992) by Robert Powell, the sage Nisargadatta Maharaj says, 

"All exists in the mind; even the body is an integration in the mind of a vast number of sensory perceptions, each perception also a mental state ...  Both mind and body are intermittent states. The sum total of these flashes creates the illusion of existence."

and on p. 201 of I Am That (1984), he says,

"Learn to look without imagination, to listen without distortion: that is all. Stop attributing names and shapes to the essentially nameless and formless, realize that every mode of perception is subjective, that what is seen or heard, touched or smelt, felt or thought, expected or imagined, is in the mind and not in reality, and you will experience peace and freedom from fear."

There are no appearances, no universe, no enlightenment, no things and no absence of things, no space and no spacelessness, no time and no timelessness. No words can be used to describe Reality--not even the word Reality itself. All words are concepts, and all concepts depend on separating and naming. As soon as we give something--even nothing--a name, we have conceptualized it and have said too much. However, words can be very useful as pointers to Reality as long as we realize that the words are not Reality and cannot describe It. The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon. When we realize that Reality cannot be described, we stop looking for It. Then we realize that there is no Reality and no absence of Reality--and even that is saying too much.

Question: Can an object exist in any way other than as the thought of it? If so, how would its existence be verified? How would we know whether something existed in the absence of a thought of it?
Exercise: Investigate whether you exist in any way other than as a thought. One way to do this is to examine everything that you think you are in the following way:
Am I a body? If so, can a body exist in any way other than as the thought of it? How would I know?
Am I a mind? If so, can a mind exist in any way other than as the thought of it? How would I know?
Am I a …..? etc.
In this way, investigate everything that you imagine yourself to be.

9.3. What is the perceiver?

(In this section we begin the convention of capitalizing all nouns that refer to noumenal or transcendental Reality, while referring to the phenomenal manifestation with lower case nouns, except where grammar requires capitalization.)

In the meditation for September 15 in A Net of Jewels (1996), Ramesh says,

"What you appear to be is the outer body perceiving the outer world, but what you are is that Consciousness in which the body and the world appear."

In the meditation for October 13, he says,

"Other than Consciousness nothing exists.  Whatever you see is your own reflection.  It is only through ignorance of your true nature that the universe appears to exist.  One who understands with conviction that the universe is nothing but an illusion becomes free of it."

In the meditation for October 7, he says,

"You are the primordial state of total freedom, that fullness of pure joy, that concentration of light which is subtler than the subtlest and the witness of everything."

On p. 528 of I Am That (1984), Nisargadatta Maharaj says,

"The person is what I appear to be to other persons. To myself, I am the infinite expanse of consciousness in which innumerable persons emerge and disappear in endless succession."

Now we investigate more carefully what or who the "I" is that is perceiving. It may seem absurd to ask the question, "Who is perceiving this (whatever is being perceived)?", since the answer clearly seems to be, "I am." However, in the light of the previous section, we must be careful. Is the "I" that is perceiving separate from all other perceivers? If it is separate, then it must be nothing but a conceptual object! All separate objects (that is, all objects) are conceptual. Any concept is the result of an intellectual process, and consequently, the separate "I" is only the result of an intellectual process. The most pervasive example of conceptualization is the concept of the individual, because the essential nature of the individual is its separation from everything else.

Question: How and when did your sense of separateness arise?

Without a separate "I", there is no perceiver or perceived, only perceiving; no experiencer or experienced, only experiencing. Experiencing is experience without the "I", which in turn is truth, love, beauty, and delight.

Perceiving implies the presence of an Awareness, without which there could be no perception. What is this Awareness?" This is the crucial question that we shall be investigating throughout this entire course. This Awareness is what is sometimes called the Self. However, calling it the Self is misleading, because it is not an object. It is what I really am, my true nature. It is Consciousness-at-rest, Noumenon, the Unmanifest, or pure Subjectivity. This means that it has no qualities or characteristics whatever. It cannot be perceived, conceptualized, objectified, or described. Because it is what I am, I cannot see it or imagine it. Thus, the terms we use are all pointers, not identifiers or descriptors.

We shall make a distinction between the concepts of pure Subjectivity (Noumenon) and pure objectivity (phenomenon), between the concepts of pure Awareness and its contents, and between the concepts of the Unmanifest and the manifest. Because separation is only a concept, the Unmanifest and the manifest are not really separate. Objects are not separate from the awareness of them. Nevertheless, we will conceptually distinguish beween the Unmanifest, which is unchanging and cannot be conceptualized, and the manifest, which is constantly changing and can be conceptualized. There is no manifest without the Unmanifest, but the Unmanifest "always" is, whether or not the manifest appears. The deep sleep or anesthetized states are examples of the Unmanifest without the manifest. The dreaming and waking states are examples of the Unmanifest with the manifest (see Section 10.4 for more discussion). In later chapters, whenever we use the term Consciousness, we shall mean the Unmanifest and the manifest, or Awareness and the objects of Awareness, together.

The Ashtavakra Gita, an ancient Sanskrit scripture of 298 verses, is said by Ramesh to be the purest form of nondual teaching in Hindu literature. Verse 7.3 says (see,

"It is in the infinite ocean of myself that the mind-creation called the world takes place. I am supremely peaceful and formless, and I remain as such."

Everybody can say the following: The only thing I know for certain is that I am aware. I, as Awareness, is the only Reality there is. I am not an object and am not separate. I am pure unmanifest Subjectivity, which is beyond all conceptualization. All else is conceptual and subject to change and loss. Whatever changes cannot be Me because I am changeless. I am not in the world; the world is in Me. I am not in space and time, they are in Me because they are nothing but concepts. There is nothing outside of Awareness so there is nothing outside of Me.

Exercise: What is it that is aware of Awareness? Is it a thought or feeling, or neither? Can it be present without thoughts or feelings? Can thoughts or feelings be present without it? Now look around you and see whether "external" objects can exist without your awareness of them. If they cannot, what does that imply about these objects? What does that imply about you?

Eventually, You will see that there is no difference between Awareness and the contents of Awareness, between pure Subjectivity and pure objectivity, or between Noumenon and phenomenon. That is why You are everything and everything is You.

The Awareness of every mind is the same Awareness. If it were not, there could be no communication between minds. The Awareness that You are is the Awareness that the sage is. The world of the sage is as individual as the world of the ordinary person. However, the sage is not identified with the I-concept as is the ordinary person (see Sections 7.6, 7.7, 7.8, 7.9, and 11.3).  

Verse 15.5 of the Ashtavakra Gita (see says,

"Desire and anger are objects of the mind, but the mind is not yours, nor ever has been. You are choiceless awareness itself and unchanging -- so live happily."

When Awareness identifies with the "I"-concept, the illusory "me" results. Whenever such a presumed, separate "me" appears, suffering inevitably results. Without this identification, there is no suffering because there is no individual to suffer. That is why suffering can disappear only when identification with the "I"-concept ceases. One example of suffering is the desire/fear experienced whenever a presumed, separate "me" clings to, or is attached to, other perceived objects, whether these objects are "external" physical objects, or "internal" thoughts, feelings, emotions, or sensations (see Section 21.3). Another example is the opposite of clinging and attachment, namely resistance and aversion to something whether it is "internal" or "external".

Question: Why is attachment suffering? Why is aversion suffering?
Question: What is suffering? Give specific examples.

Disidentification happens when the viewpoint shifts from that of the individual to that of impersonal Awareness. This can follow spiritual practice in one or more of its many forms, or it can be a sudden spontaneous event that occurs without prior practice.

9.4. Many minds, one Awareness

We saw in Section 9.1 that the objective interpretations of quantum theory have the problems of nonlocality, collapse, or branching, and that only the subjective interpretation avoids these problems. In Section 9.2, we saw that the only world that I can perceive is the one in my own mind. Consequently, no external, objective reality is either observable or problem-free. Hence, I am forced to conclude that my world is completely subjective.

However, if my world is completely subjective, then even I am completely subjective. Consequently, I cannot be an entity that perceives or that does anything else (see Sections 11.4, 11.5) because any entity must be an object, i.e., it must be perceivable by either me or some other observer.

In this philosophy, we might agree that the objects in my mind sometimes appear also in your mind (Section 6.5). However, you see the objects from a different perspective from mine. For example, both your body and mine might appear in your mind as well as in mine but the images in my mind are different from those in yours, so the bodies are different. However, while our minds are necessarily individual, Awareness is universal, and neither You nor I am a mind because our true identity is the Awareness that is aware of all minds.

Within this concept, suffering can only occur if "I" perceive anything to be separate from "me" (see Section 9.2). If "I" perceive "you" to be separate from "me", "I" may feel that "you" are an object of attachment (clinging) or an object of aversion (resistance) to "me". Likewise, if "I" perceive "my" thoughts, feelings, and body sensations to be separate from "me", "I" may feel an attachment or an aversion to them. In either case, there is suffering. The only way this suffering will disappear is if the sense of separation, i.e., the belief that I am a separate entity, disappears.

Exercise: Examine your own concept of suffering (not the concepts that you have been told or what you have read). Look at your own experiences of suffering according to your own concept of it. If you do experience suffering, is it a thought, feeling, emotion, body sensation, perception, or some combination of those? If it is any of those, would you change it if you could? If you do not have a concept of suffering, do you have any experiences at all that you would try to change or would rather not have? If you would not call those experiences suffering, what would you call them?

We can never directly perceive the world in any mind but our own (see Section 5.5). In this regard, our worlds are uniquely our own (see Section 9.2) because the world is nothing but a concept within each mind. Now we ask, if each mind contains its own world, how is it that our minds are able to communicate with each other? Why is not separation total and absolute?

In Section 5.2 we introduced the concept of nonlocal mind (without relating it to nonlocal Awareness). In the Copenhagen interpretation (Section 6.5), we saw that the Awareness of all observers is the same Awareness (in Section 6.5, we called it nonlocal Consciousness). If Awareness were not nonlocal, in the absence of an objective reality two minds could not communicate with each other about the same object (e.g., a "table" or a "body"). Communication between individual minds requires a common element that connects the minds together. In the Copenhagen interpretation, this common element is nonlocal Awareness (see Sections 4.3, 5.2, 12.1, 12.2, Chapter 16). [In classical physics, it is the classical fields that connect objects together (see Section 2.6).]

Nonlocal communication between minds may be experienced directly as an interpersonal connection which transcends verbal communication (see Sections 5.2, 5.6). This is most clear whenever ego conflicts between minds are not so strong that they obscure the nonlocal connection. Such connections are clearest in many parental and filial relationships, sibling relationships, close personal relationships, support groups, therapy groups, and meditation groups (see Chapter 16).

Questions: What direct experiences can you cite as evidence that other minds exist? If there is more than one mind, why do you think Consciousness has manifested as more than one? Why not just one?

9.5. Objectification, the body-mind organism, and the primacy of the concept of memory

As we have seen, all objects, including the body-mind organism, stem from concepts. (As we shall see in Section 11.4, objects appear when Awareness identifies with these concepts. We can call this process objectification.) The world in each mind can be conceptualized as simply a collection of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions. In this conceptualization, the body-mind organism consists of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and some of the perceptions, while the "external' world consists of the remainder of the perceptions. The focus of this course is to see that all objects, especially the individual "I", are fundamentally conceptual, although some objects appear deceptively persistent and solid.

The concept of memory leads to the apparent persistency of mental images (a concept). As we shall see in Section 12.1, the concept of memory is the basis for all experience (a concept), so memory is primary to all other concepts. (In Goswami's model of the brain, the classical part is responsible for memory; see Section 7.4.) Without the concept of memory, there can be no concept of change, so there can be no other concepts, no experiences, no individual "I", no body-mind organism, and no world. In particular, because we can never directly experience any objective past or future, it is clear that they also can only be concepts. 

9.6. The "hard problem" in consciousness science

Because most scientists of all types are mentally wedded to a belief in an external reality, they are unable to see an alternative picture. In particular, they are unable to see that Consciousness, rather than external reality, is the fundamental Reality. Thus, they persist in attempting (and in failing) to create an objective theory of Consciousness. When the contents of Awareness try to objectify Awareness, it is like a puppet trying to "puppetize" the puppet master (see Section 13.3), a picture on a movie screen trying to "pictureize" the actors (see Section 13.2), a shadow striving to "shadowize" the object that is casting it (see Section 13.4), or humans trying to "humanize" God.

The problem of trying to create an objective theory of subjective experience has been labeled the "hard problem" of consciousness by David Chalmers (see Scientific American, Dec. 1995, p. 80; and (The so-called "easy problem" is to explain the functioning of the brain in terms of objective concepts.) In fact, there is no hard problem for those who are aware that they are aware.

Art by Jolyon,

This page last updated March 13, 2011.
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