The Yogic View of Consciousness 19: The Cave of Consciousness


YVC19 cover-1The Cave of Consciousness contains all those factors, processes, and structures that affect conscious experience without us being directly aware of them. The brain is the doorway to all of this. We discuss that much of what the brain does is not conscious.

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


Previously On PlaneTalk…
The last chapter discussed how Manifestation is one vast interconnected network. We considered two extreme views of what this network is. Leibniz saw a divine, pre-established harmony amongst an infinity of mutually reflecting monads. We determined that Leibniz’ monads, if thought of in real terms, would look like a fun house of mirrors.


The way each monad appears to all the others is different than how it appears to itself.

Krishnananda, on the other hand, simply cut to the chase when he characterized Manifestation as “a network of unintelligible relationships”.

We resolved this apparent contradiction by recognizing it was an apples to oranges comparison. Leibniz’ monads can be interpreted as an intuition of Kaivalya, the Absolute. On the other hand, Krishnananda, drawing on Hindu thought, was referring to the Manifestation, where, as we see all around us, things indeed are quite messy and unintelligible.

Even the “harmony of the spheres” is upset by chaotic trajectories when considering three or more heavenly bodies. Under the heading of “unintelligible” we can add, among other things, quantum mechanics, the unobservable universe, and Gödel’s theorems.

To the smashing of the delusion of our omnipotence, Jerry Seinfeld would say: “That’s a shame.


Everybody thought the planets moved so perfectly until Poincare did his thing.

Western mystical writings like Leibniz or Plotinus make a lot more sense when placed in the context of the Hindu triple ontology of the Absolute, Unmanifest, and Manifest.  As we’ve seen, the Hindu ontology links the messy Manifestation to the ineffably perfect Absolute.

The link is made by way of the four phases of the gunas. Sattva, rajas, and tamas each come in four flavors named visesa (specific), avisesa (general), linga (marked) and alinga (unmarked). Collectively, the four phases of the gunas can be identified with what in the West is called the unconscious mind.

The term “unconscious mind” is paradoxical. Why? Because we are talking about being aware of something—the unconscious—which, by definition, we are not aware of.   However, the paradox is only apparent. There is an intimate relationship between the conscious and unconscious minds. This is tricky to express in words, but here we go anyway…

To parse out the relationship between conscious and unconscious stuff, let’s again consider the graphic of the yogic view of consciousness:

YVC 18 Fig 1We already discussed the Absolute and the bindu. The light of consciousness is always just given: it is its own explanation. It projects from the bindu onto a “screen”, our first-person awareness. To get to the screen it must traverse the cave. In a simple-minded way we can think of the cave as the unconscious mind and the screen as the conscious mind.

An alternative metaphor we’ve repeatedly used is the idea that the mind is like a body of water. This is captured in a wonderful quote from Vivekananda. Here, the surface of a lake is first-person awareness and the depths are the unconscious mind:

“[Chitta] is the mind-stuff, and Vrttis are the waves and ripples rising in it when external causes impinge on it. These Vrttis are our whole universe…

The bottom of the lake we cannot see, because its surface is covered with ripples. It is only possible when the ripples have subsided, and the water is calm, for us to catch a glimpse of the bottom. If the water is muddy, the bottom will not be seen; if the water is agitated all the time, the bottom will not be seen. If the water is clear, and there are no waves, we shall see the bottom. That bottom of the lake is our own true Self; the lake is the Chitta, and the waves are the Vrttis.”


Left: The normal surface mind, full of waves/vrittis. Right: Chitta vritti nirodhah.

But where do the waves come from? Or, using our cave metaphor, what are the effects of the unconscious structures on the conscious mind? These structures arises from the four phases of the gunas. The light of consciousness is filtered, diffracted, distorted, etc. by the structures in the cave of consciousness.

Therefore, our first person awareness is conditioned by whatever is in the cave depths. Our conscious awareness is akin to shadows or projections of the structures in the unconscious mind. Which means the unconscious is encoded in our conscious experiences.   Therefore, conscious and unconscious are not opposites. Each is contained in the other, like the yin/yang symbol.


To give an overview of where we are going with this, it’s clearest to just show you my outline:

1. Concrete relationships between conscious and unconscious processes
xxxxxA. Brain function
xxxxxB. Psychology
xxxxxxxxxxa. Freud & Jung
xxxxxxxxxxb. Yogic samskaras
2. General relationship between conscious and unconscious states

In this post, we’ll discuss 1A in the outline, the current neuroscience view of the unconscious.

In the next post we’ll use this understanding to look back at Freud and Jung in a way that accommodates modern sensibilities. Then we’ll offend modern sensibilities by showing how yoga has had the same ideas for millennia in its concept of samskaras. When I finish accommodating and offending sensibilities, I’ll offer a general picture of how the conscious and unconscious minds mirror each other.

The Unconscious According To Cognitive Neuroscience
When people hear the term “unconscious”, weird and nebulous things come to mind: Freud’s Oedipus complexes, Jung’s shadows and mandalas, Dali’s paintings, etc. The current crop of philosophical pygmies display little patience with these types of ideas. Therefore, it is better to gradually build into them by first considering more easy-to-digest views of the unconscious mind. Let’s start off by looking at what we know about how the brain works.


Be vewy, vewy quiet…I’m hunting intewectuals and don’t want to tewwify them…

Bernard Baars, a cognitive psychologist, presented his Global Workspace theory in his book A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness. This theory provides operational definitions of conscious and unconscious mental processes that are based on observable human behavior and known brain function, and plenty validated by laboratory and clinical experience. I’ve summarized Baars’ model elsewhere and won’t repeat myself here. Instead, I’ll simply paraphrase Baars’ definition of unconscious mental processes:

Unconscious processes affect consciousness without being directly conscious themselves.

This is a nice working definition. It captures the essentials needed to account for a wide variety of mental phenomena. Much of the action of our brain is unconscious. We do not consciously control our heartbeat, or even our breathing most of the time. You do not consciously control the nerves that release digestive enzymes from your pancreas to your intestine. These, and other vegetative circuits are hard-wired in our brains and will run even if the higher levels of the brain (e.g. the cerebral cortex) are destroyed. These factors, of which we are not conscious, nor do we generally control, are unconscious features of the nervous system that affect and condition consciousness.

It may surprise some people to know that even the voluntary activities we associate with consciousness are mostly unconscious. When you move your arm or walk, for example, huge amounts of neural activity occur in your brain and spinal cord of which you are completely unaware.

Similarly, when you see, hear, and otherwise sense the world about you, most of what the senses and brain are doing is invisible to your conscious mind. Our conscious experience of seeing, hearing, etc., is the end product of a long chain of events.

It is as if we are watching a play, but never get to see any of the “behind the scenes” action that went into making the play in the first place. As J.J. van der Leeuw said:

“It is as if we were prisoners in the vast palace of our consciousness, living confined to a small and bare room beyond which stretch the many apartment of our inner world…In our consciousness we knew but results, we saw but that which rose to the surface and became visible.”

None of what I am saying is metaphysical or theoretical. Neurologists, for example, deal with brain-damaged patients every day. They see first-hand the consequence of “breaking” the “behind the scene” events that the nervous system performs (e.g. by stroke, head trauma, brain cancer, etc., etc.). We are totally oblivious of theses aspects of brain function in our day to day behaviors.

Thus, regulation of the body, moving the body, and using the senses are mostly unconscious in their functioning, which is to say, we are not in the least conscious of how these things happen.

But it doesn’t stop there. The “invisible” unconscious functions also occur at the level of thought and cognition, supposed hallmarks of being conscious. How is it, for example, that you can read these words right now and make sense of them? Are you conscious of how you make sense of what you are reading right now? No you are not.

You are reading, and what you are reading simply makes sense. You do not have to stop and consciously parse the meaning of every word, and then determine how the words are strung together in this or that way to give a particular meaning.

Your ability to mostly unconsciously and automatically comprehend all this is not magical, of course. You were not born with the ability, but learned it over many, many years. Nonetheless, it is built in to how the brain functions that effective learning becomes more and more unconscious and automatic over time with repeated practice.  Now, after years of training, your reading comprehension happens automatically. All the behind‑the‑scenes activities that are occurring in your brain at this moment as you read these words is invisible to your consciousness. It is unconscious.

In The Beginning Was the Word
Let’s consider the things happening in your brain right now, allowing you to read, which you are not aware of. In the Bible, first God spoke, then there was light. In our phenomenal consciousness, it’s the other way around. Light carries written words to the brain. Most everything happening between the light and the words in your mind is unconscious.

Light is entering your pupil and hitting the back of your eyeball, your retina. Do you see the light hitting your retina? Of course you don’t.

In the retina, about a 150 million neurons per eye are releasing chemicals on each other, and changing the amount of electricity each contains. Do you see it? Do you see the chemicals being released and flowing around in your retina? Do you see the changing electrical patterns amongst the cells? Of course not.

Next, currents of electricity are flowing in two wires (the optic nerves) that leave the back of your eye and go into your brain. Do you see the electrical current going up the wires to your brain? Of course you don’t.

Then, the electrical impulses entering the brain causes all kinds of other electrical currents to form in the back of your brain (occipital lobe), in turn causing the release of chemicals that cause additional currents. It is all extremely complex. Do you see the currents of electricity flowing along the bramble of branches that make the neurons in your occipital lobe? No.

For the right-brained amongst you, here is an animation of the visual pathways I make graduate students watch each year when I teach neurophysiology:

What is the link between the flowing currents of electricity and chemicals in your brain tissue and what you actually see? This is called the qualia problem and there is no answer to it at present. The authors of the above video are rather cavalier when they speak of the brain “rendering” visual images. This is just hand-waving fluff, although the biology they show is accurate enough. As seen at the Wiki-link, no less a genius than Erwin Schrödinger believed the qualia problem cannot be solved…but I digress…

After activating the visual areas of cerebral cortex, the electrical and chemical currents spread into other brain regions that interpret the original signal that came in from the retina. In some fashion that is NOT understood right now, the flow of electricity in a particular region called Wernicke’s area causes the various patterns of lines you are looking at to become words.

Other brain regions recognize that the other visual stimuli, such as the device you are reading this on, are not words, and so push them out of the word processing pipeline. Are you constantly reminding yourself that your computer screen (or on the very off chance—pieces of paper) you are reading this on is not a word? No, that happens unconsciously and automatically.

Not only do the lines become words, they also become meaningful. What you are reading on the screen are patterns of forms and shape that trigger patterns of meaning in your mind. Do you see the vast library stored in your cerebral cortex that link specific forms and shapes (i.e. words) with specific meanings?

Tip of the Iceberg
Well, this becomes more interesting because, while you do not see it as a whole, you can direct your attention to any part of this library and make it conscious.

Consider this pattern of lines:


Now consider this pattern of lines:


Now consider this pattern of lines:

ookey ookey bugga bugga

See how you can scan through this library at will? You can direct your attention to your “mind’s eye” and see whatever you wish in this library. But you certainly cannot see the whole library at once. What happens to the rest of this library when you are not aware of it?

It is not unreasonable to say that it becomes unconscious.


Our awareness at any instant is that part of our personal memory network to rise to the surface and appear on the screen of awareness. The rest is submerged, making up part of the structure that exists in the unconscious mind.

Our awareness at any instant is that part of our personal memory network to rise to the surface and appear on the screen of awareness. The rest is submerged, making up part of the structure that exists in the unconscious mind.

Sidebar. You will also hear terms like “pre-conscious”, “subconscious”, or other such qualifiers used for information that you can voluntarily access but which is unconscious most of the time. Such terms may be useful in other contexts. For our purposes they are not useful. We will stick to simple black and white terms. If you are aware of something, you are conscious of it. If you are not aware of something it is unconscious to you.

What the above exercise illustrates is that most of what happens as you read these words right now is invisible to your conscious mind. However, these invisible processes are, at minimum, conditioning, and at the extreme (if you are a hardcore materialist), creating your conscious perceptions.

Therefore, things of which you are unaware are affecting your awareness. This is Baar’s definition of unconscious.

It is impossible to make a computer that reads like we do. Computers cannot read and comprehend like we can. They can be programmed to recognize patterns (see the links in my post here), but that is it. There is no consciousness and no comprehension in a computer. A computer only mindlessly and mechanically follows some pattern programmed into it by a human. We humans still must recognize and interpret the patterns the computer isolates.

Therefore, even IBM’s famed Watson computer would get tripped up if you showed it this:

Thz cent sense kin nt bee red buy waaa sin       bah t u r huuumin n kkkan rheed it N ndr stndit.

How did you just do that???


Computers got nuttin on us!

Funny thing is, whatever processes are acting that allow you to read the silly sentence, you do all the time with emoticons and SMS shortcuts. This has to do with the fact that semantics and syntax are only loosely related. This is recognized in yoga by the terms sabda (“sound”), which are words, symbols, and syntax, and jnana, which is the meaning in your mind (see here for elaboration on sabda, jnana and artha). Semantics and syntax are not the same thing. Sorry to all the structuralists out there…no system of symbols can ever capture meaning. The medium is not the message.

To summarize. Complex processes occur in your brain that ultimately allow you to associated meanings with symbols, particularly words, and string the symbols together into sentences, math proofs, pieces of music, etc. Then you can shoot these out of your mouth or fingers as fast as speeding bullets. In spite of the neuroscience alluded to above, we have only a crude outline of these processes. Details of essential processes are missing. The qualia problem is a huge lacunae sitting in the middle of all this. Nonetheless, we can still look for patterns of regularity.

What is clear is that a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes activity goes on. In other words, most of what language entails is unconscious.

The iceberg figure above begins to allude to the unconscious memory patterns that serve as screens or filters for our conscious experience.In the next chapter we delve even deeper into the unconscious memory patterns at work in our mind as we continue to explore the Cave of Consciousness.

See you soon in chapter 20.


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