Saturday, May 21, 2005

Consciousness, mind, soul and meditation

I read Dr. Susan Blackmore's interesting presentation paper on "There is no stream of consciousness." In it, Blackmore promotes self-experience and self-experimentation, to generate new ideas about the nature of consciousness. She details the history and most recent research on the stream of consciousness and challenges our acceptance of the concept. She combines this with the hypothesis that the world we generally experience as 'in' our consciousness is a grand illusion. Finally she presents the following as her current best model:

I want to replace our familiar idea of a stream of consciousness with that of illusory backwards streams. At any time in the brain a whole lot of different things are going on. None of these is either ‘in’ or ‘out’ of consciousness, so we don't need to explain the ‘difference’ between conscious and unconscious processing. Every so often something happens to create what seems to have been a stream. For example, we ask “Am I conscious now?”. At this point a retrospective story is concocted about what was in the stream of consciousness a moment before, together with a self who was apparently experiencing it. Of course there was neither a conscious self nor a stream, but it now seems as though there was. This process goes on all the time with new stories being concocted whenever required. At any time that we bother to look, or ask ourselves about it, it seems as though there is a stream of consciousness going on. When we don't bother to ask, or to look, it doesn't, but then we don't notice so it doesn't matter. This way the grand illusion is concocted.

Following her suggestion of self-experimentation and experience, I compared this with my experiences of the stream of sound and the stream of consciousness during intense, silent meditation retreats. After about eight days (80-90 hours of meditation) I found it possible to experience sound as merely the vibration of the ear drum. This vibration initiated a chain of brain activity (that could be observed and stopped) including the recognition that 'a sound' had been heard, followed by a probe for identification of the 'sound', then by a judgement (pleasant or unpleasant) and/or request for reference (associations with past experiences and other information). There was no constant stream of sound recognition. The experience of 'sound' arose in response to the stimulation of the physical sense organ. There were perceptible gaps in this arising.

Likewise with my experience of the mind's contents. My first observation was that there was mind and something other than mind, 'overmind' if you will that was capable of observing and remaining apart and continuously present--I will call this 'soul' as that is where my thinking is at right now. The mind's content's were experienced as a jumble of disconnected, discontinuous, meaningless stories, emotions, and judgements. Over a number of retreats, and at the 80 + hour mark, the mind was calmed and emptied sufficiently (and the soul's attention adequately honed) to clearly experience the gaps between 'thoughts'. So, I find my experience generally supporting Blackmore's hypothesis--no stream of consciousness. The experience of what we usually mean by consciousness (the contents of the active mind) arises as sensation stimulates a physical receptor. Soul, on the other hand, I have experienced thus far to be continuous--unaffected by the sensations of the physical body. More experiential data required....

How does it seem to you?

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