I expand on the yogic theory of consciousness. First I express it as a simple model, then I explain the features of this model in more detail.
Contents for The Yogic View of Consciousness:
|Intro||Ch 1||Ch 2||Ch 3||Ch 4||Ch 5||Ch 6||Ch7||Ch 8|
|Ch 9||Ch 10||Ch 11||Ch 12||Ch 13||Ch 14||Ch 15||Ch 16||Ch 17|
|Ch 18||Ch 19||Ch 20||Ch 21||Ch 22||Ch 23||Ch 24||Ch 25||Ch 26|
|Ch 27||Ch 28||Ch 29||Ch 30||Ch 31||Ch 32||Ch 33|
Ok, this is a long post. I considered breaking it into multiple parts but decided to leave it as one long piece. The Reader can take it in chunks as they wish.
If you haven’t read Part 1 first, I suggest you do so.
We begin by summarizing the yogic view of consciousness using a metaphor of a movie projection. The text is meant to be read in conjunction with viewing Figure 1. We start with this simple picture and flesh it in as we proceed.
You can imagine your immediate awareness as the inside surface of a balloon. The balloon as a whole is your mind (the cave of consciousness). The world that seems to be outside of you actually originates from a “hole”, the bindu, which exists at the deepest level of your mind. The real world (Kant’s transcendental) projects through the bindu into the mind. What is projected into the mind is the “light” of consciousness. In the mind, the light of consciousness is distorted, reflected, refracted, and so on, by the many structures in the mind. The distorted light of consciousness gets projected on the inner surface of the balloon and generates conscious experience there, or what van der Leeuw called “the world-image”. The world-image is your immediate moment-by-moment awareness.
When your awareness is directed to the screen, this is paranga cetana, outwardly directed consciousness, which is the normal state of most people. When you reverse the flow of the light of consciousness away from the screen and back towards the bindu, this is pratyak cetana, inwardly directed consciousness. Pratyak cetana occurs naturally when transitioning between states of consciousness, but it can be perfected and voluntarily controlled by the methods of Patanjali’s yoga. (I previously discussed a bit about pratyak and paranga cetana here).
This picture of the yogic view of consciousness is the yoga-enhanced version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The things we are aware of are “shadows” projected on a screen that is our immediate awareness. We have no direct awareness of the extent of the Cave, or of what lies in its depths, or of the bindu, or of the real world that does the projecting. They are the hidden foundations of our direct, immediate conscious experience.
Let’s step through all this in more detail.
The Real World
What is the nature of the world?
Here in the West, the plethora of philosophies and theories seek to explain the nature of the world in terms of one of, or some combination of, the shadows on the cave wall.
If the shadows involve the seemingly external world that we appear to be embedded in, we call the corresponding views materialism or physicalism. If the shadows involve the mind, thought, or awareness, we call the corresponding philosophies idealism, panpsychism, or some variant thereof. If the shadows involve both the world and the mind, we call it dualism.
There is a third type of theory that claims that nothing is explainable ultimately. Examples would be the variations of existentialism. Theories that explain the world as unexplainable are not really explanations. However, they do have the advantage of admitting to the futility of finding ultimate meaning in the shadows and that is their value.
But in terms of views that claim a positive something-or-another is at the root of things, we are left with the materialistic and idealistic views. In general, these are considered to be opposites.
Let me make this perfectly clear: materialistic and idealistic views are NOT opposite.
They are just two extremes of attempting to explain the nature of the world on the basis of the shadows on the cave wall. They are the same. Any distinctions between them are completely arbitrary because all they do is seek to explain reality in terms of the shadows that play out on the screens of our conscious minds.
What is the nature of the world from the yogic view? According to the yogic theory, your very consciousness, the “light” of your awareness is Brahman; it is the real world. Not any particular shadow: not this perception, not that thought, not this intuition, or that observation, or this deduction, etc. No. The only fact that matters is that you are aware of anything at all.
Your awareness IS Brahman. IT is the nature of reality. Brahman is like light, but instead of illuminating, it gives BEING. Everything else is but the play of shadows within this being.
Get To The Point
Reality, Brahman, consciousness, projects into the cave of consciousness through the bindu.
What the heck is a bindu?
To those not familiar with Hinduism and yoga, the idea of the bindu is completely alien. The bindu is not a theory or a mere idea. It is a reality experienced in advanced yoga practices (again, see SwamiJ’s article; I give a brief discussion here).
The bindu derives from the fact of samadhi, which is the extreme single-pointedness of the mind. The Yoga Sutras never explicitly mention the bindu. It is centuries later in Kashmiri Shaivism, where the idea is codified. Aphorism 3-15 of Vasugupta’s Shiva Sutras mentions the bindu:
Bija means “seed”. In this context it means “the seed from which the universe grows”. Avadhanam means “pay devoted attention to” or “remain one pointedly fixated on”. As with all aphorisms, this statement contains multiple layers of meaning related to its place in the “thread” of the Shiva Sutras (suture).
Aphorism 3-15 is generally interpreted as an instruction to focus with samadhi-consciousness on the source (seed) of the universe. For example, Bhaskara’s translation is: “Constant attention to the seed”. Swami Lakshmanjoo translates it: “Maintain breakless awareness of that supreme energy which is the seed of the universe.”
A Western mind favorably disposed towards these ideas is likely to interpret this “seed” as referring to some externalized agent, like God, or some other power that created the world. But in yoga, everything takes place deep in the consciousness of the yogi. Thus the aphorism can be interpreted as an instruction to the yogi to seek out the source of his universe, the bindu, which is the source of the yogi’s individualized consciousness. This is the interpretation Taimni gives:
“At this stage of Atma-jnana [Self-knowledge] the consciousness of the Yogi is centred in the centre of his consciousness, i.e. the Centre from which his mental world is projected. This point is called the manobindu in Sanskrit and is concentric with the Mahabindu.”
Thus the bindu is that which links the individual to the universal. The procedure to find the bindu was outlined in the quote by van der Leeuw at the end of Part 1. He described nirbija samadhi. The bindu can only be found in nirbija samadhi.
This is why everyone from Kant through Fitche, Hegel, and Weyl could not find an escape hatch out of the individual mind. Instead, they found various compromises to cope with the shadows. People like Nietzsche, Sartre, and their ilk threw in the towel and quit trying, which was the right thing to do. It is better to be neither right nor wrong rather than just half right, and therefore half wrong.
However, when we consider Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, one wonders if he learned something of the bindu from ancient India.
We Are Still Cave Men
Speaking of Plato, let’s now consider what the cave is. It is, broadly speaking, the mind. But when I say “broadly” I do mean broadly! We have to tackle the cave in two sections. This section discusses the cave in general. The next section will talk about what we find inside the cave.
It is good that the West knows there is more to the mind than what is available to immediate perception and direct introspection. However, the Western ideas are confused, controversial, and there are diverse viewpoints. Most of them focus on the contents of the cave so they are discussed in the next section.
Eastern thought also has a variety of approaches to the unconscious aspects of the mind. Compared to the West these tend to be more systematic and comprehensive. Patanjali’s system is a masterwork of the human intellect, for example.
Further, unlike Western views, the scope of Eastern thinking allows it to speak to the genesis of minds. This is expressed in a number of illustrative metaphors. The dew drop and the shining sea, the fire and the spark, acorns and oaks, and stuff like that. What these ideas mean to convey is exactly what was said above: our individualized consciousness is made directly of the same “stuff” as the Universal Consciousness (e.g. Brahman, Shiva, etc.).
There are many such descriptions, but we turn specifically to Kashmiri Shaivism (KS), which, in my estimation, is one of the most advanced and mature expressions of such ideas. A very complex hierarchy of processes is given in KS to account for the formation of individual minds.
In KS these processes are encapsulated in the general idea of a constriction of the Universal Consciousness into the individual consciousness. The property of constriction is expressed clearly in aphorism 4 of the Pratyabhijna Hridayam of Ksemaraja:
According to Taimni this breaks down as:
citi – the ultimate reality in its aspect of cit (mind, e.g. Sat Chit Ananda: Being Mind Bliss)
samkoca – contraction, constriction, centralization
atma – the individual Self, Monad
cetanah – pure consciousness (I have used the synonym drisimatrah in past writings)
api – though, even if
sankucita – in a contracted form
visva – universe
maya – full of
Here are two different translations:
‘The Atma or the individual Monad is merely a contracted or centralized form of universal consciousness. Even though he is nothing but pure consciousness, this is obscured by the mental world of the individual which fills it.” (Taimni)
“The individual (experient) also, in whom Citi or consciousness is contracted has the universe (as his body) in a contracted form.” (Jai Deva Singh)
What is being described here is a process of the Universal Consciousness constricting to form individualized minds. But what is constricted, and what is the process of constriction?
IK Taimni gives an intelligent discussion in Man, God and The Universe, which I briefly summarize. Metaphors like the spark from the fire, or a ray from the Sun fail to convey that what is constricted remains connected to the whole. The idea of a plant and its seeds describes how the smaller copy has the potential to be the same as the original, but again fails to convey the idea of a persistent connection.
A more modern metaphor to conceptualize the constriction process is to use fractal geometry and say the constricted form is a self-similar replica of the larger form. Then, the smaller remains an indelible part of the whole. In addition, the smaller contains within it infinite copies, as does the whole.
However, what all such metaphors lack is the recognition that, in some sense, the constricted form is illusory; that it is a projection akin to a virtual imagine inside a mirror. We come back to this below when we discuss the screen.
In summary, this constricted form is the Cave of Consciousness. It is the mind. And it is a deep and complicated cave that we now discuss.
Peeking Timidly Under the Surface
In the West, the ideas of the subconscious and unconscious minds have varying degrees of acceptance. At one end are uncontroversial “hard science” facts, and at the other end are ideas that provide the content to the mainstream’s idea of the looney bin.
It’s clear that the brain does things that never enter consciousness, like maintain balance and posture, keep heart rate and blood sugar constant, and other things considered reflexes. We know too of instincts: bundles of reflexes that can be modified by learning and experience, which we share with the animals. This level is pretty uncontroversial as this stuff goes.
When we get into the cognitive or mental unconscious, it gets fuzzier. It is certain that memories are stored in our brains that we are not conscious of all the time, but that we can access if we think about it (like imagine your Mom’s face), or if there are suitable cues. Perhaps the most important of these most-of-the-time-unconscious memory banks is language, which serves such a great role conditioning our moment-to-moment awareness.
But then it gets weirder. We can talk about unconscious “complexes” in a Freudian sense or the Collective Unconscious in a Jungian sense. At this point the physicists and neuroscientists get up and leave the room giggling. But psychologists and psychiatrists and other professions who worked regularly with people with “psychological issues” find these ideas operationally useful. So, at minimum, something is going on, otherwise there would be no value at all to such ideas.
After this, it just gets plain weird. There are people like Maslow talking about peak experiences, and Terence McKenna describing DMT hallucinations that talk back to him, and Stephen LaBerge flitting around in the world of lucid dreams. There is some idiot out there who tells people to “DO_OBE“. From the view of mainstream science, this stuff is the fringe and is tolerated because it is ignored.
On a broader historical level, I’ve discussed the two-level view that has dominated in the West about how the mind and consciousness relate to the link between man and God. This is the kind of stuff found in Nicholas of Cusa, Saint Augustine, or Leibniz. However, after Nietzsche, the only major player who kept up with this kind of nonsense was Hermann Weyl.
[Side bar: I really wish Weyl’s Open World essay was available online; people need to read it. For those who don’t know, the first sentence is: “A mathematician steps before you, speaks about metaphysics, and does not hesitate to use the name of God.” The second sentence makes my point: “This is an unusual practice nowadays.” That was in 1932.]
Serious considerations that God has anything to do with the mind have long gone out of fashion in the West. People who talk about such things today are relegated to religious studies, humanities, and other such pens and stables that serve as “safe zones” for what is considered frivolous discourse in other quarters (hello, science, I’m talking to you!).
The above is a sketch of the broad landscape of ideas the West has about what the mind looks like underneath the surface of our immediate and direct awareness. It’s very sad to say that this is what Plato’s Cave has turned into over 2000 years of Western intellectual evolution. It is certainly a fine example of degenerate evolution.
Boldly Going Where No Occidental Man Has Gone Before
The East has major ideas common to the various schemes of the mind’s structure that I list here. I use the Hindu terms just because I know them well, but equivalent terms exist in the various schools of Buddhism, Taoism, and so on.
A list of elements of the mind in Eastern psychologies:
- Perceptions and actions of the physical body (Pancha Bhutas)
- The mind (manas), which is usually broken into two parts:
- Thought conditioned by emotions and physical perceptions (Kama manas: lower mind/desire mind)
- Thought conditioned by spiritual insight (Buddhi manas, higher mind).
- An organ of meaning, value and judgment. In yoga this is called Buddhi.
- The ego, or individuality (ahamkara in yoga). This is often taken as the highest level of the mind, and is a natural, built-in feature of the mind. It is an explicit acknowledgement that the individual mind is a constriction of the Universal. Ahamkara, as a concept of individuality, stands in contrast to Western views that see individuality in terms of personality, personal history, and so forth, which are all features that generally would fall under the “lower mind” category in Eastern thought.
- A soul. In Hinduism in general this is called Atman. In Patanjali’s yoga, it is called Purusa.
These ideas represent the structure of the cave of consciousness according to various Eastern schemes. The above list can be considered a description of the anatomy of the surface mind.
But it doesn’t stop here. In addition, there is a very rich understanding of altered states of consciousness. In the West, these ideas have been imported as things like Theosophy’s concept of the Planes of Nature and similar such schemes.
A typical Westerner who knows about and, for whatever reasons, accepts the idea of the Planes of Nature will tend to apply a Western gloss to the concept. They will imagine a very grand cosmology that expands the notion of the “real world” to go beyond the physical and encompass the nonphysical worlds. They will interpret the idea of the planes to mean that there are hidden subtler worlds in which we are embedded, in the same way that people accept that we are embedded in an external physical world that is outside of us.
However, this is a Western mistake. The planes are not outside of us. They are inside of our mind. The Planes make up the substructures of the mind. They are the depths of the cave of consciousness.
The Cave Is A Layer Cake
There are many schemes of the Planes to choose from. Each has merits and they all map to each other anyway. Since I am focusing mainly on Patanjali’s yoga, I will use the 4-fold breakdown of the inner worlds described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (that I used in Part 9 of What Is Science?).
To remind the Reader, I repeat the table from there (I found this nice web page too).
|State of gunas||Corresponding state of consciousness||Meaning|
These are layers or strata in the cave of consciousness. The surface mind is vitarka and it perceives gunas in the visesa state. Vitarka grows out of the deeper strata. When we dream, vitarka fades into the background and the screen of our consciousness becomes vicara and we perceive the avisesa state of the gunas. This is as far as the typical Western person descends into the cave when they have a physical body.
Thus, there is not a straight projection from the bindu to the vitarka surface mind. Instead, the light of consciousness is filtered through these layers after entering at the bindu. It is a highly filtered and conditioned light of consciousness that eventually illuminates the screen of vitarka, or what we call “normal” waking consciousness.
Therefore we can update our graphic to include the four phases of the gunas as screens, or sieves, through which the light of consciousness is filtered.
The dividing of the light rays are my feeble attempt to illustrate how the pure light of consciousness gets filtered, or conditioned, as it ascends up through the Cave of Consciousness, eventually forming our normal waking mind (vitarka) of the physical (visesa) world.
Thus, what are shadows projected on the cave wall in Plato’s Allegory are actually the complex patterns that consciousness takes after being filtered and conditioned by the four layers of the cave of consciousness.
I am only pointing out the general structure of the Cave. I’m not going into any detail about the qualitative content of the four layers of the mind. I did this to some extent in Part 9 of What is Science? and won’t repeat myself here.
Instead, let’s now turn our attention to the screen idea.
The light of consciousness “registers” on the screen. The screen in the metaphor is meant to represent our moment-by-moment immediate awareness. It is the “surface” on which the shadows are projected.
It is a strange “screen”. Instead of just showing images, it also “shows” smells and tastes, the various forms of touch (somatosensation), sounds, emotions, thoughts, memories, and all kinds of weird little freak things that only pop up occasionally and without any obvious logic such as inspiration, insight, psychic experiences, and so on.
Understanding that the screen = immediate consciousness is a major key to understanding the yogic view of consciousness. The things mentioned in the previous paragraph are what make up your perceptions of the world, your body, and your conscious mind. It is exactly these perceptions that lead you to conclude that “you” are embedded in the “real world” that exists “out there”. It is what appears on this screen that serves as the substrate for all the plethora of philosophical meanderings in the West.
To repeat, this way of perceiving, meaning being aware of the screen, is called paranga cetana, outwardly directed consciousness. Recall Taimni’s ideas about mirrors in Part 1. It is asserted in yoga that all of these conscious experiences are “virtual images” analogous in status to the virtual image inside a mirror. They appear to be outside of “you”. Recall again Allan Watts’ statement:
“I can’t be honest because I don’t fully know what I am. Consciousness peers out from a center which it cannot see—and that is the root of the matter.”
He is describing paranga cetana in its bare-naked essence.
According to the yogic view, the light of consciousness projects itself in such a way to generate these virtual perceptions of a world that is seemingly outside of “you”, the you who is peering out from a center (the bindu) that you cannot see. Without the methods of yoga, this is the best one can do to make sense of the cave of shadows within which we are trapped.
A screen? Seriously? Where does this strange idea come from?
Her Screen (or Girls Love to Look at Themselves in the Mirror)
The idea of projection onto a screen is central to the yogic idea of consciousness. The idea is extremely abstract. It is described in aphorism 2 of the Pratyabhijna Hridayam of Ksemaraja:
“This Reality emerging as divine power, by her own independent will unfolds the manifested universe on the screen of her own consciousness.” (Taimni)
“By power of her own free will does She (Citi) unfold the universe upon her own screen.” (Jai Deva Singh)
This statement describes the creation of manifestation as the projection of consciousness onto a screen also made of consciousness. The Shiva-Shakti Tattva (discussed in Part 10 of What Is Science?) is implied in this aphorism. Recall the Shiva-Shakti Tattva is the primal differentiation at the root of manifestation. Brahman splits into passive awareness (Shiva) and active power (Shakti). The Shiva-Shakti Tattva is the first step in the constriction of consciousness that leads eventually to our individual minds.
It is bizarre that this process is described in terms of projecting onto a screen. How can we even get our head around this idea?
“This avidya, or ignorance, is a strange something which is a twist of consciousness, a kink in our mind, a kind of whim and fancy that has arisen in the very attitude of the individual towards things in general—which has been taken as the perpetual mode of rightful thinking. This ignorance or avidya is, really speaking, an oblivion in respect of the nature of things in their own status, and an insistence and an emphasis of their apparent characteristics, their forms, their names and their relationships….”
Let me reword this in the terms I am using in this essay (single quote for paraphrase):
‘This paranga cetana, this outwardly directed consciousness is a strange twist or kink of consciousness, a whim or fancy, which people take as the correct way to use the mind. However, it really is only a preoccupation with the shadows on the cave wall and therefore is oblivion with respect to the true nature of things. Paranga cetana, outwardly directed consciousness, gets us forms, names, relationships, qualities; the shadow-knowledge of the world…’
Consciousness gets “knotted up” and the result is the generation, or projection, of virtual images on a screen made of consciousness where the images are formed such that we take them as reality. But how does this work?
Kashmiri Shaivism (KS) provides a rich description of how this entire process works in its scheme of 36 Tattvas. I am not going to explain that here. People can read up on it as they wish. It is my interest to determine to what extent our modern sciences can be mapped to what is described in KS. This approach is not original with me. My main influence is I.K. Taimni who does this throughout his writings, especially in Man, God and the Universe. Dr. Maria Syldona has also done interesting work along these lines too.
There is what might be considered a major bifurcation point in KS’s 36 Tattvas and that is the Māyā Tattva. To quote from the Wikipedia page:
“Māyā tattva is a very important stage in the process of manifestation. Mā means “to measure”; measurable means finite. From the infinite being that is Śiva, it creates the finite: the illusion of multiplicity, differentiation in multiple objects and limitation of objects. This process of manifestation is based on a series of multi-levelled reflections (pratibimba), creating a series of octaves or intervals.”
In Experience, I equated maya with the generation of potential infinities, referred to as “the illusion of multiplicity” in the quote above. One way to generate such an illusion is to hold two plane mirrors up against each other. As we all know this generates a seeming infinity of reflections. But the virtual images are not reality, which is why we call them “virtual”. Yes, they reflect something that is real, but the virtual images are themselves not real.
In some analogous sense, the images—the qualia—that make up the contents of our immediate direct awareness are like the virtual images. They seem to be there. But according to the yogic view, they are just virtual images that are so filtered, conditioned and compounded, that we are completely ignorant about the real thing that is being reflected.
But maya is not simply infinite virtual reflections within reflections. It also has the weird property of seeming to have two sides, but only having one, like a Möbius strip. It seems both subjective and objective. Sometimes it is “on”, sometimes “off”. All the dualisms embodied in the Ying/Yang symbol, which, in my opinion, are most perfectly captured in the notion of a Möbius strip.
Maya is also associated with a strange kind of apparent motion. Allan Watt’s half-jokingly called this movement the “ennie-weenies”. It is a spinning motion that folds back on itself in a fashion that cannot be adequately captured with words, like it is operating in a space of more than three dimensions. It appears to have the property of never completing itself and Watts’s refers to it as a dog chasing its tail. In this sense the weird spinning movement seems to be the motion analog of the infinity of reflections in the mirror. In the mirror case you will never see all infinity of reflections. In the movement case, it never catches itself.
So three ideas seem relevant to getting at least some handle on maya in our modern terms:
- Maya generates virtual images via a reflection process.
- Maya seems to have two sides, but only has one side.
- Maya spins in some weird, non-3D motion that never completes the circle.
There is some process occurring in consciousness by which it folds back onto itself and has the three properties listed above. This seems to be intimately related to the idea of the “screen” of consciousness, and also the process of paranga cetana, or the directing of consciousness towards these virtual images and believing that they are real.
As we proceed, it will be apparent that this conception of maya is linked to the Western classical problem of The One and The Many. How does diversity arise from unity? In subsequent chapters, we’ll address this from several angles, both Eastern and Western. To foreshadow, we will consider the generative power of counting (Chapter 14), the spectra generated by quantum mechanics (Chapters 16 & 17), Leibniz’ monads (Chapter 18), and modern views of networks, information, and memory (Chapters 18-22) to get a modern handle on the ancient Hindu idea of maya.
The yogic theory of consciousness is radically different than any Western view. First, it does not try to explain consciousness as caused by anything with which we are consciously aware. Consciousness is taken as the basic fact. We call this an “axiom” in the West. Further, none of this is airy-fairy intellectual armchair philosopher stuff, but derives from the experiences of advanced yogis who have left descriptions of what they have found in the depths of the cave of consciousness, as well as a variety of Western, non-yogic sources (the subjects of Chapters 24-31).
The yogic view starts from our normal conscious awareness. But instead of paying attention to the objects of perception, the shadows on the cave wall, the yogis went inward and downward, underneath surface consciousness. There they discovered the cave of consciousness and its various strata. At the very bottom, they discovered the bindu, the point where Reality projects itself into the mind, the cave. They figured out how to penetrate the bindu and see what was on the other side. There they discovered that consciousness is the primal reality of all things.
This is why in yoga, all real knowledge is self-knowledge: it is the discovery of what is under the surface of the conscious mind. Krishnananda said it beautifully:
“The practice of yoga is neither a religious tradition nor a profession of the academy. It is a way of living, a condition of our being, to put it very, very precisely. The condition of our being is the knowledge that is really worthwhile, and any other knowledge is an external growth which can be washed away by a bath with soap; therefore, it will not help us.”
That is the status of shadow knowledge: it is like dirt and will wash away with soap. It will not help us.
In Part 3, we will discuss some of the implications of the yogic view of consciousness.