As I walk along the bluestone corridor, an ambiance all too familiar. Generic faces reminiscent of souls. Their lips move, but the sounds that issue forth are not intelligible. All I can hear are the cries of the same braying ass.
Most weeks on my way to the lounge at the National Gallery, I take the small detour to Bill Viola’s Ocean without a Shore, an art installation in a blackened room, where a film is projected onto three portrait-oriented screens. Sequentially on each screen, a person approaches, pacing slowly toward the foreground. The ghostly silhouettes appear heavily blurred seen through a sheet of cascading water. Up to the point of stepping through the water’s threshold, the subjects are depicted indistinctly in greyscale. Crossing through the waterfall, they come into sharper focus and vivid colour. One particular character always strikes me; a young woman who approaches the threshold, pushes her fingers through, hesitates momentarily, withdraws, and turns back to the void.
Ocean without a Shore is emblematic of consciousness, the animation in front of the threshold representative of life, and the void behind it non-life. In withdrawing, it is insinuated the young woman prefers death to life.
This entry will venture a broad exploration of consciousness, from its absolutes in life and death, to its gradations and the phenomena which obstruct it.
Paying homage to Socrates and his penchant for composing from opposite quantities, consciousness can be viewed as a degree determined by some combination of awareness and ignorance, or life and death if you prefer a more poignant representation.
We will begin with the negative absolute: death. Under the simplifying assumption this life is all there is, then the span preceding birth, and span following death are similarly devoid of consciousness. By prerequisite, there can be no awareness when unconscious, which is why a person awakening from a coma will have no recollection of anything that occurred throughout the duration of their cataleptic state.
Moving into life, there are two elements to basic consciousness:
- Self awareness is the lucid cognisance of our own existence; that we are in the here and now. During the formative years, this awareness gradually switches from one of requirement (food, attention) to one of being.
- Environmental awareness is the comprehension of our surroundings through our senses; what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch.
Combined, the two awarenesses constitute a rudimentary definition of consciousness. Though the distinction between ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’ is straightforward, further analysis is warranted for the gradations that exist within the conscious state.
Within routine existence, our least conscious state is sleep, during which awareness of environment and being is largely dormant. We then move to the state of wakefulness, wherein we spend the majority of our time. Here we are conscious, but the nature of this consciousness varies. The variation is between ‘waking sleep,’ encompassing the habitual or automatic part of living (performing routine tasks, ‘going with the flow’), and ‘fully awake,’ wherein the consciousness is self-aware and has heightened faculties of perception and interpretation. The distinction can be obscure, so to demonstrate, consider the act of going for a walk. In a waking sleep, the task is automatic and your conscious is focussed on your destination or elsewhere (e.g. thinking about work/dramas/fairies.) In a fully awake state however, your conscious is absorbing and actively contemplating faint sounds in the distance, the colours and textures of the scenery, the sensation of the breeze, the scents it carries, and other environmental stimuli.
Waking Sleep is best illustrated by the significant portion of our lives we spend within a routine or engaged in an automatic activity, from driving to making small talk. In such situations, higher consciousness is inert, and there is a tendency to accept rather than actively question. Moreover, the aperture of the lens through which we interpret is narrow. Having a conversation in waking sleep, you focus upon the content and surface attributes of your counterparty. In a fully awake state, your conscious awareness is extended to the nuances of the situation, context, implied content, gestures, micro-expression, tonality, and your counterparty’s interaction with the environment. In short, being fully awake is a state where the conscious is extended over (and is actively engaged in) a radically broader range than what is required to simply perform an action or task.
What distinguishes the aforementioned states of wakefulness is the degree of conscious intensity. To elaborate further, the discourse of Arthur Schopenhauer illustrates quite eloquently the level of existence as a function of conscious intensity:
“There is no need to speak of savages whose life is often no more than one stage above that of the apes in the trees; consider for instance a porter in Naples or Venice and regard the course of his life from its beginning to its end. Driven by want, sustained by his own strength, supplying the needs of the day, indeed of the hour, through his own labour; a great deal of exertion, constant turmoil, a great deal of hardship, no care for the morro, refreshing rest after exhaustion, much wrangling and brawling, not a moment to spare for reflection, sensual ease in a mild climate and with tolerable food; finally, as the metaphysical element, some crass superstition provided by the Church. This restless, confused dream constitutes the life of millions of men. They know only for the purposes of their present wants: they give no thought to the coherence of their existence, not to speak of that existence itself: to a certain extent they exist without really being aware of it.
Now consider the prudent, sensible merchant, who passes his life in speculations, cautiously carries out well-considered plans, establishes his house, makes provision for wife, child and heirs and also takes an active part in public affairs. This man obviously exists with very much more consciousness than the former: i.e. his existence possesses a higher degree of reality.
Next, observe the scholar, one for instance who explores the history of the past. This man will be conscious of the existence of the whole, beyond the era of his own existence, beyond his own person: he ponders the course of the world.
And finally the poet, and even more the philosopher, in whom thought has attained such a degree that, neglecting individual phenomena in existence, he stands in wonder before existence itself, before this almighty sphinx, and makes of it his problem. Consciousness has in him risen to such a degree of clarity that it has become universal consciousness, through which him idea has stepped beyond all relation to the service of his will and now holds up to him a world which challenges him rather to investigation and contemplation than to involvement in its activities. – If, now, degrees of consciousness are degrees of reality – then when we call such a man the ‘most real being’ the phrase will have sense and meaning.”
Observe with each ascending degree, so rises both the depth and breadth of cognition; the individual’s sphere of engagement extends outward. Granted level of engagement can indicate where an individual is on the continuum between waking sleep and fully awake, it needs to be used cautiously, and in context. An individual may be highly engaged, but in a way which is stultifying to consciousness. There are a number of such frictional phenomena that prevent the consciousness moving higher and tether it in the dregs. The inhibitors appear chiefly in the forms of behavioural conditioning, idolatry and immersion.
Behavioural conditioning is insidious. It confounds me to the point my mind lapses into a repetitive internal monologue of ‘what the fuck?’ Complete immunity from it is exceptionally rare, but blindness to its incidence is an affliction more common than a cold.
Conditioning is a prominent concept in psychology, defined as the process by which certain behaviours are learned or conditioned by use of stimulus to either reinforce or bring about extinction. For example: conditioning a dog to be quiet by punishing it whenever it barks.
I apply it here in the context of misdirection through association. The conditioned behaviour is the general manner in which Western man conducts his life, and the stimulus is a self-reinforcing hedonistic voracity. It is facilitated by society’s structure and how transactions between its members are conducted, namely utilitarian opportunism.
What I am describing is a strong convention linking possession and indulgence with contentment; and that, conditioned to assimilate this association as truth, we have taken to living by it. This is the core of behavioural conditioning, and the key to understanding it is to realise that most everything attainable in life, be it tangible or intangible, is composed of two prime units, energy and time which are imperfect substitutes. Conditioning takes these two units, and perverts their course.
Effectively we have been inculcated with a directive: accumulate, consume, gratify, and devote a considerable amount of our real resources (time and energy) toward those ends.
It is perhaps too rash a contention to broach with impunity, but I will put it forward in any case: that the pursuit of conditioned directives impairs conscious awareness. When focus is concentrated upon narrow ends, particularly where society quantifies worth based on those ends, it can become obsessive and the ends will be furthered at the expense of others which are more meaningful.
In that regard, the first example that comes to mind is employment. For the most part, we work to live, but if we are not careful, this relationship is inverted, and becomes such that we live to work.
At the beginning of a career, it is common to assimilate by plugging the self-esteem into the chosen profession, be painting or banking, and becoming economically and psychologically reliant upon that profession. As the individual becomes further entrenched in their profession, a ratifying tendency develops to suppress dissonance. I will term this tendency ‘specialised snobbery;’ the artificial feeling of importance garnered through specific skill or knowledge, be it real or imagined.
Although specialised snobbery is most visible in professions which masquerade as people: academia, finance, law and medicine, its prevalence extends across all occupations unlikely to hold meaning beyond death. This envelops all physical crafts, most fields of natural and applied science, and all the humanities, perhaps with the exception of Philosophy and related disciplines. Insofar as they all concentrate on worldly and human phenomenon, they are of dubious relevance outside this reality.
An extreme case of behavioural conditioning is illustrated in the society of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, wherein civilian time is deliberately structured so as to be consumed entirely by work, social activity and ritual, leaving almost nothing to solidarity. This overbearing routine detracts significantly from the individual’s free time and energy, which are prerequisites to engaging higher consciousness.
Both Huxley in Brave New World and Orwell in 1984 make connections between:
- perversion of time and energy toward conditioned desires (idolatry) >
- conditioned/imposed stultifications (immersion) >
- psychic regulation >
- general ignorance and unawareness >
- passive existence >
- political control
Were I an autocrat, this is exactly how I would want my power structure to be underpinned: subtle mind control and subjects oblivious to it. In the chain above, idolatry and immersion are the prerequisite impairments of consciousness necessary to establish despotic societies.
Conditioned & Instinctive Desires
Before delving further into how idolatry and immersion, a crucial distinction must be made defining natural objectives which time and energy should be directed toward from artificial objectives which time and energy are diverted toward:
- Instinctive (natural): Survival, procreation, understanding
- Conditioned (artificial): Sensory indulgence (immersion), projection
Interestingly, many conditioned desires can be viewed as mutations of their instinctive antecedents. Projection for example, is the human equivalent of the competitive displays such as ‘Peacocking’ and fighting in the animal kingdom, designed to attract mates for the purpose of procreation.
Idolatry (The Obelisks)
I want you to imagine two towering obelisks, each rising from the Earth like an infinite streak whose pinnacle soars beyond sight. One glints blindingly of solid Gold, the other presents the weathered, enduring edifice of granite. Onto their surfaces, large glyphs are engraved; signs of currency upon the Gold obelisk, and symbols of faith upon the Granite.
At their pedestals, billions of worshippers congregate and grovel, awestruck by the monuments which bear the markings of seemingly supernatural craftsmanship. Would you recognise them? They are money and religion; two of the most powerful synthetic forces governing the existence of present-day society, operating on the wings of greed and fear respectively.
What is particularly interesting about these two forces is that they are polarising and stratifying – creating vast divisions within the human race. Wealth imposes a scale from luxury to poverty, and piety is binary: either inclusive or exclusive. Loosely, they are civilised substitutes for the survival imperative which dictates the expenditure of time and energy the animal kingdom.
Money and Religion hamper the ascent of consciousness because they are sinkholes which leech the individual of time and energy, and provide in return security blankets of spurious value. Spurious because the former is only able to assuage material anxiety and the latter’s capacity for ameliorating metaphysical anxiety is contingent on the individual’s surrender of consciousness.
Consciousness cannot associate itself with synthetic quantities – it resides in a domain outside human construct. Were consciousness to have an obelisk, it would be that of wisdom, and it would be intangible, represented by light. Its followers would be those standing in the beam.
The instruments of conditioning can be viewed as stultifications and distractions, chiefly of pleasure/flesh (alcohol, sex, music, food, drugs, entertainment) and of pride/mind (wealth, power, vanity), which divert focus from the wellbeing of the soul and are placed as a barrier between the individual and higher consciousness to mollify any desire to rise further. Each of these diversions can be observed as immersions.
Sensory Immersion is a common impediment to higher consciousness, through which consciousness is ‘hijacked’ by one or more of the five senses. Immersion heavily engages a sensory system (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, gustatory, and olfactory) such that the consciousness is drawn to the object of immersion at the expense of acute awareness.
Pervasive Immersion applies when the ‘hijacking’ is perpetrated by definitional, non-sensory engagements (wealth, status, ability, power), thereby drawing consciousness into a parallel awareness which can be either disjoined from reality, steeped in a different reality, or a warping of reality.
Tabulated below is a breakdown of the sensory and pervasive routes engaged by common immersions, with the final column denoting parallel awareness.
Immersion creates interference because our senses are not instruments of consciousness, rather instruments of transmission. They are the interface through which we have awareness of the world around us, absorbing different types of information/stimulus which are transmitted to the brain for interpretation.
When a sense is overwhelmed, a short-circuit occurs which results in distorted interpretation. Framing the senses as gauges of stimulus, immersion is the red line on the dial, after which point saturation occurs and objectivity is compromised, akin to pointing a camera at the sun and not being able to capture its true likeness because the optics are overwhelmed. For the auditory sense, this could be deafeningly music at a concert or club. Similar logic can be applied to the other senses – like all instruments, their capacity for measurement is compromised past certain limits.
Atmosphere plays a key role in the ‘elevation’ of a sense beyond baseline level; the analogy of being ‘immersed’ in water and the linkage to everything else being, quite literally ‘drowned out.’
I posit the immersion imperative revolves principally around the increasing need to separate from multifarious stimuli and become absorbed in a single signal; drawing on the example of Generation-Y, who seem to ‘cure’ or escape from temporally high living pressures by indulging and finding release in pastimes and activities that involve sensory immersion.
Does the release element of immersion stem from more the concentrated (as opposed to defrayed) attention relished upon the object of stimulus, or from the sensory preoccupation ‘crowding-out’ of mental capacity to engage in active cognition?
For the most part, people are inherently lazy, and seek to avoid thinking wherever possible. Given this inclination to minimise cognitive expenditure, it should come as no surprise that may of the largest and most profitable industries (gambling, music, film) are those that satiate desire for immersion. The business of assuaging existential angst through assorted routes of distraction is lucrative.
To the question of why immersion is an impediment to consciousness, we need only look to Maslow’s Hierarchy. Immersions act as a ceiling which stops time and energy getting through to the higher degrees of consciousness inherent in self-actualisation. When the individual believes immersion propels them effortlessly into nirvana, the pursuit of higher conscious states which require cognitive effort becomes unnecessary.
One of the more disconcerting trends I’ve notice lately is artificial psychic regulation. At seven o’clock each morning on my way to work, I see numerous people wearing slightly forlorn expressions, whose semi-vacant, deadened eyes avoid my gaze. Often they hold a steaming cup of coffee, or a smouldering cigarette, sometimes both. At six o’clock any given Friday night on my way home from work, I see numerous people looking considerably cheerful, whose semi-vacant, enlivened eyes overlook my gaze. Often they hold a frosted schooner of beer, or a smouldering cigarette, sometimes both.
It appears we’ve lost the ability to internally regulate psychic volatility, instead relying on stimulants when we need a shot in the arm, and depressants when we need to calm back down:
- Caffeine stimulation to alleviate tiredness
- Alcoholic anaesthetisation to dull stress and numb pain
- Nicotine sedation to stabilise and calm frayed nerves
These three products also possess the special features of being addictive, socially engrained and strongly price inelastic. If we consider a cup of tea versus a cup of coffee, the latter is typically priced at a premium of approximately 30%, a bottle of beer commands a premium of over 100% over soft drink, and I could make four kilograms of carrot sticks for what it costs to buy a pack of cigarettes.
In the absence of higher consciousness, artificial regulation is necessary to cope with, suppress and allay the anxiety and discord which issues from living pressures. In Brave New World, Soma, a mandated hallucinogen, performs the same function. The sustainability of a semi-conscious majority of drones, in no small part rests on the easy availability of psychic regulators to allow perceived escape.
Though it can’t be proven, the open availability of alcohol persists, in spite of its demonstrated negative health and social effects, to hold discord in check. Said discord, commonly encountered as “there’s something wrong with all this, but I can’t put my finger on it” is a manifestation of consciousness attempting to ascend. Unless this impulse is hastily quashed by a ‘quick-fix’ (immersions, alcohol, drugs etc) path of least resistance, people would have no alternative but to (a) despair, or (b) question, neither of which are particularly conducive to the structural integrity of the superstructure.
A test of consciousness can be performed by simple observation of the amount of energy and time committed to each of the two standards, and equivalent states of passive and active existence. Standard of Living (hedonistic) versus Standard of Being (esoteric)
Attention to both standards is required to realise a dual objective: survive in this world, and maintain your soul.
The key variable which influences these two standards is time. Given enough time, we could eventually accumulate exceptionally high levels of prosperity and wisdom. But our time on this Earth is limited. The eighty-odd years with which our account is credited isn’t very long from the perspective of a planet that has lived four billion. It is the blink of an eyelid against a lifetime.
Seventeenth century mathematician Blaise Pascal is notorious for his battle with this very conundrum. Do we concentrate our efforts on our body, indulging every impulse, oscillating between the euphoria of pleasure and anguish of pain, or do we focus more upon illuminating wisdom and promoting the wellbeing of our soul? If one were absolutely certain that this existence was all there is, the logical course would be a life of unbridled hedonism. However, if there is a ‘soul’ that endures death and remains beyond it, it would make sense to concentrate our efforts on cultivating/nurturing the soul.
It isn’t quite as simple as trading off between the esoteric and the material for most of us. As Schopenhauer notes, there is an innate difference in the amount of raw intelligence possessed by each individual which, along with the issue of circumstance, will to an extent dictate the degree of consciousness reached by the individual, the rung on Maslow’s Hierarchy to which they climb.
So where does this leave us? Consciousness is a concept which can be taken to eye-watering levels of complexity, and numerous philosophers have done so with varying degrees of success.
For a civilisation, higher consciousness is favourable, this much is patently obvious – it would prevent wars, reduce wastage and direct real resources more toward improving the condition of humanity. For the individual however, I am unable to make a normative assessment because for some, as the adage goes, ‘ignorance is bliss,’ and increased consciousness only serves to create anxiety.
That one encounters a braying ass and construes ‘stupid donkey’ is in itself a conditioned perception, the very kind rebuked by higher consciousness. If the ass is content with his lot, and is not doing any harm, then to pass judgement on it would be absurd.
If however we validate normative assessment by saying the ass and his braying are causing harm, then it deserves, allegorically, to be taken to slaughter.
From a normative standpoint, consciousness has its antithesis in ignorance. To address the issue with a value judgement, we invoke the alternative and contrast a world under rule of consciousness to one under ignorance.
As history had taught us, ignorance is grievously damaging irrespective of how it is justified, and we have only ever seen examples of partial and localised ignorance. When machines such as war are driven by visceral unconscious forces, the outcome is senseless death and destruction.
Though it appears the justification is by a particularly extreme instance, the insidiousness is readily observable in everyday life. Any time harm is committed and the excuse “I didn’t think” is raised, the harm is on occasion of ignorance, and could have been averted if its perpetrator were more conscious.
Degree of consciousness is what distinguishes human existence from that of the animal.
P. X. Waterstone