“The Self, the true Consciousness of Siva, shines as endless space within my Heart, as my very existence, beyond the reach of objective knowledge.” – Sri Muruganar (1893 – 1973)
Experience Predicates Existence
The starting point of human understanding is the indisputable fact of experience. Experience is the alpha and omega of our earthly life. The content* of experience, whether truth or illusion, does not alter the fact that experience exists. There is experience, therefore there is existence: experience predicates existence. What exists is experience and its contents: experience is constituted of content.
* In the sense of ‘awareness of _____’
The meaning of the word ‘experience’ is not delimited to ‘my’ experience or even ‘your’ experience, which is what common sense unconsciously assumes. The possessive adjective ‘my’ is a qualification mentally superimposed upon an impersonal substratum of experience. In fact, impersonal experience, where there is neither subject nor object, functions at a more fundamental level than the personal, ‘I-other’ experience with which we are familiar. Rather, it is an awareness of being: a being that is neither a thing nor not a thing, but rather an ‘is-ness’.
Outside of direct experience, any other mode of existence is subject to doubt. We may infer that some thing exists beyond our immediate experience, but we can never prove it beyond all doubt. If you and I were to meet face to face, all we would know indubitably about each other is what we directly experience in that meeting. Upon parting we would each undoubtedly assume the continued existence of the other even though no longer within range of the senses. Such assumptions however, are not indubitable.
Beyond direct experience, there is necessarily an element of doubt about the continued existence of what has been experienced. If we are not experiencing something directly, how can we be certain it exists? Others may testify that it does exist and we may hear it directly from their own lips, but how do we know that their testimony is still valid at the current moment when it is being uttered? And even though we experience the same object or person again and again, we have no guarantee that a further reappearance will occur.
Impersonal Experience Is ‘Something-ness’
It is evident that the starting point for a description of the world — a description which includes the idea of the self — is a ground of indeterminate, unqualified experience most accurately characterized by the word ‘something-ness’. The term ‘something-ness’ does not presuppose the subject-object duality inherent in other terms such as ‘thing-ness’, ‘my-ness’ or ‘other-ness’. The dualistic thought or feeling or conviction that ‘I’ am the experiencer experiencing something other than myself rests upon a non-dualistic foundation of impersonal experience.
Indeterminate Experience Is Composed Of Impressions
While it is evident that experience in its differentiated state is composed of objects and events standing in relation to an experiencing ‘I’-subject, experience in its indeterminate state is present as a mass of unrelated impressions (see definition below*) that precede any sense of an observing or experiencing ego-self. Consider, for example, those occasions between sleeping and waking when there is consciousness of movement, sound, colour, etc, yet all is incomprehensible. There is a sense of ‘am-ness’ but no sense of a personal ‘I’, and nothing is familiar or has relatedness; rather, there is simply an impersonal awareness that something is happening. Similarly, those advanced in the practice of deep meditation note that there is a moment (or moments) between the thinking state of ordinary consciousness and the transcendent state of pure Consciousness in which something indeterminate is appearing, but not to a thinking or apprehending subject. In this state, the subject-as-locus has disappeared while an impersonal, non-local ‘witness’ remains. This witness is actually the unbounded Self (Atman) of Yoga.
* Impressions: indeterminate, unrelated occurrences having no discernible cause
The Notion Of ‘Sense-data’ Is Inferred
In fact, before the universe of subject and objects comes into being as the dominant content, experience in its primal form manifests as undifferentiated raw data which we have termed, ‘impressions’. We utilize the word ‘impressions’ to avoid the presumption of five physical senses feeding sense-data to the mind. The notion of senses feeding data is in actuality an inference which makes up an important part of our description of the world. It also explains to a large degree how we make up this description. Nevertheless, an inference is a conceptual assumption rather than a direct experience and is therefore subject to doubt. Impressions themselves cannot be doubted as they are simply what is being presented in consciousness.
For the present, therefore, we will presuppose nothing and accept only what is immediately present and unformulated. It is this early, undeveloped stage of experience which establishes the fact of existence, for in the absence of these unformulated impressions there can be no experience and ‘ipso facto’, no positing of existence, either ‘a priori’ or ‘a posteriori’.
Experience Predicates Consciousness
Where there is experience, there is necessarily consciousness: experience predicates consciousness. In the absence of consciousness there can be no experience, as in the state of deep sleep when consciousness gives way to unconsciousness and, simultaneously, experience disappears. In fact, we could argue that experience is consciousness undergoing apparent modifications while remaining what it is — i.e., consciousness.
Consciousness Is The Ground Of Experience
Unformulated impressions are not objects, nor is there any self-conscious subject apprehending them. They comprise undifferentiated experience (something-ness) and cannot be distinguished, in any conceptual sense, from consciousness. Furthermore, while experience is consciousness, the converse is not necessarily true — i.e., consciousness is not always experience. Thus the two terms are not tautological since while experience predicates consciousness, consciousness does not predicate experience. In other words, consciousness is the ultimate ground of all experience, not the converse.
Reality Of Pure Consciousness Established By Vedanta
The various systems of Yoga have established that through meditation it is possible to attain a state of pure consciousness — i.e., one void of impressions. The Sanskrit term for this state is ‘nirvikalpa samadhi’, meaning consciousness without qualities or, alternatively, consciousness without any form of appearance. Nirvikalpa samadhi is a state that transcends both the conscious state of experience and the unconscious state of deep sleep. A precise definition of this and related states of consciousness has been has been succinctly worked out in the major texts of advaita Vedanta, as well as in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a treatise predating Christ and the most authoritative work of Yoga philosophy and practice.
Consciousness Is The Ultimate Ground Of All Phenomena
Impressions, which have their being in consciousness, are the foundation of all empirical knowledge. Experience, in the form of indeterminate impressions, is the primal manifestation of consciousness: a manifestation that is prerequisite to consciousness becoming intuitively — i.e., as distinct from conceptually, self-aware. Consciousness is the ground and support of impressions and, in turn, impressions are the ground of a world of objects and events of which to be conscious.
Impressions and consciousness, as the inseparable constituents of experience, together constitute the ground of a determinate world-appearance. Their relationship, within the context of experience, is one of identity. Impressions have no being independent of consciousness, but rather have their being as appearing. As such, they are more accurately referred to as ‘consciousness-impressions’.
The Intuition Of Consciousness Precedes Its Concept
In the primal condition of non-dual, indeterminate experience there is neither an observing subject nor an observed object. Consciousness is not conceptually self-aware — i.e., as the thought, ‘I am conscious’, but subsists as an unbroken unity free of the ‘observer-observed’ duality. As established by Vedanta, consciousness will persist with or without the impressions, but in order for the intuition or awareness of consciousness to arise there must be some alternating between the two states of consciousness-impressions and consciousness-by-itself — i.e., without impressions. How is this? Simply put by analogy, in order to know darkness one must know its opposite, light and order to know light one must know darkness. It is the juxtaposition of the two which creates awareness of the principle of light.
Similarly, it is the appearance and disappearance of impressions, such as occurs at the crossover between waking and sleeping, which produces the intuition of consciousness. Being awake means being conscious, regardless of the constantly changing contents of experience. When the contents of experience disappear with the onset of deep sleep so, apparently, does consciousness. Upon awakening there is a brief moment of consciousness-by-itself or pure consciousness (the nirvikalpa samadhi of deep meditation) followed immediately by consciousness-impressions. It is this juxtapositioning which gives rise to the intuition (as distinct from concept) of consciousness. The concept of consciousness arises with the crossover from consciousness-impressions to consciousness-of-things.
The Notion Of ‘I Am’
Consciousness revealed through impressions is immediate, undefined awareness without an object: it is consciousness-of-somethingness; it is not conceptual. Experience in the form of undifferentiated impressions incorporates the intuition of both consciousness and existence. It is this primal, non-conceptual revelation which serves as the basis for the subsequent birth of the notion of an experiencing ‘I’ or subject.
The twin concepts of existence and consciousness arise as a later development following the birth of conceptual self-awareness in the form of the thought-feeling, ‘I am’. This self-aware ‘I am’ personalizes the awareness of existence and consciousness as ‘I exist’, ‘I am conscious’. Thus, the intuitions of existence and consciousness which were pre-thoughts now take form conceptually as: ‘I am, therefore I exist’ and ‘I am, therefore I am conscious’.
‘I Am’ Is The Locus Of The World-appearance
The thought, ‘I am’ is the primal thought of the phenomenal universe. Without it there is no possibility of formulating a description of the world, for the world-appearance is a complex of objects and events which demand an observer and a locus in order to be known. This observer/locus is ‘I am’. Neither the observer nor the observed can come into being independently. They are mutually dependent, for without a locus there are no observed objects and without an object there is no observing locus. The observer and the observed necessarily arise together as a mutually dependent subject-object dyad, in which the subject is the locus and objects make up its environment.
Existence And Consciousness Are Inferred
Indeterminate, simple impressions are a necessary yet insufficient condition for notions of consciousness and existence to arise. Although consciousness and existence are revealed by the contents of experience they cannot be directly observed. Not being directly observed, they are inferred. Their inference is analogous to the inference of light. No observer actually sees light, only colour. However, in the absence of light, there can be no colour. When there is light, there can be colour and it is though the experience of colour that light is inferred. Similarly, no-one actually sees either consciousness or existence, only objects, whether gross (sensory) or subtle (ideas, memories, etc.). In their absence there can be neither objects nor impressions nor any other form of experience. When they are present there can be objects, and it is through objective experience that both consciousness and existence are not merely intuited, but inferred conceptually. However, any inference requires both a thinking subject and an object of thought, therefore the birth of the ego or empirical self (‘I am’) is the sufficient condition for the notions of consciousness and existence.
The inferences of consciousness and existence are unlike the ordinary inferences of daily life. When we see smoke rising from behind a hill we will infer fire even though we do not see it directly. In all probability, our inference will be confirmed once we take a look behind the hill, but not necessarily. The smoke could turn out to be steam rising from the boilers of a factory. We know that these ordinary inferences are mere probabilities, whereas inferences of consciousness and existence are of a different order — i.e., they cannot be inferred directly from the data of the senses, as in the case of smoke and fire.
Consciousness and existence are not perceivable objects or events and we cannot confirm them empirically. Rather, they are of the nature of principles or ideas. We must assume them as ‘a priori’ truths, in the absence of which knowledge in any form would be impossible. Just as the visual appearance of a tree in the absence of light is inconceivable, equally inconceivable is the appearance of a thought or an object in the absence of either consciousness or existence. Inferences of consciousness and existence are ‘a priori’, whereas ordinary inferences, such as fire from smoke, are ‘a posteriori’. Ordinary inferences presuppose a causal connection (e.g., fire causes smoke) which may prove wrong. However, the ‘a priori’ inferences of consciousness and existence are the indisputable presuppositions of all experience, since in the absence of the former there is no possibility of the latter nor can the question of causality arise.
The thought-feeling of subjectivity (‘I am’) is the sufficient condition for the notions of consciousness and existence to arise, which take explicit form as the cognitions, ‘I am conscious’ and ‘I exist’. These cognitions are implicit in all cognitions of the subject-object form, such as ‘I am touching this chair’. The very statement, ‘I am touching this chair’ asserts existence and consciousness in both a personal, atomic form (‘I exist’, ‘I am conscious’) and an impersonal, universal form (‘there is existence’, ‘there is consciousness’). In fact, it is this act of cognition which upholds and reinforces the thought, ‘I am’, and which affirms the axiomatic notions of consciousness and existence.
No Proof That Impressions Have A Cause
Experience originates as simple consciousness-impressions. What is the cause of these impressions? We cannot say with certainty, since they are the most fundamental level of experience accessible to us. There is nothing in our direct experience which points undeniably to their cause or even proves they have a cause. Any theory we come up with, such as the theory that impressions are caused by a material, external world (which includes the physical senses) either impinging on or creating consciousness, must always remain a possibility since such a world is an inferred world and not one which we can know directly or prove absolutely. Thus, the world that we do know without qualification is the world of experience itself and not any other world.
And so we are left the intriguing question: ‘Does any thing exist beyond experience itself?’ This is one of the oldest and most debated questions of philosophy. For the present, however, we will leave this topic aside and focus instead on how the world-appearance is brought into being.
Subject And Object Are Mutually Dependent
In the absence of impressions, as in deep sleep (unconsciousness) or nirvikalpa samadhi (pure consciousness) there is no experience of somethingness and therefore no possibility of a sense of subjectivity. Furthermore, without a determinate ‘thing’ arising from the indeterminate ground of somethingness there can be no awareness of an experiencing subject. It is not the impressions themselves that give rise to the subjective sense, but rather the objects and events that are formulated from impressions.
With the birth of the object comes, simultaneously, the birth of the subject, and vice versa. Object and subject are not entities separated by time and distance, nor does one cause the other: rather, they are born, coexist and disappear together. An object is any cognition of, for example, a concept, a memory or a physical entity, such as a tree. Any moment or act of cognition points in two directions simultaneously: one at the object, the other at the subject. It is only with the co-arrival of the subjective sense of I-ness and the objective sense of otherness that conceptions of consciousness and existence — i.e., ‘I am conscious’, ‘I exist’, are cognised. These cognitions are themselves subtle objects (ideas) coexisting with the sense of subjectivity (‘I am’). These subtle objects require a subject — i.e., they point to a cogniser. Equally, the cognising subject requires an object — i.e., it points to what is cognised.
Since both subtle and gross objects of cognition are continually appearing and transforming (either by subtle modification or by radical change) it is easy to make the mistake of assuming a stable, discrete subject who is experiencing a stream of unfolding events. This sense of an enduring, atomic subject is illusory, since at the moment in which all objective content disappears (as with the onset of deep sleep or the attainment of nirvikalpa samadhi) all sense of subjectivity disappears as well, thus putting into question the assertion of a persisting, independent locus of experience — i.e., subject, ego or empirical self. The subject must have an object in order to be self-aware. With the disappearance of objectivity, self-awareness vanishes also. Consciousness may remain, resting in its own luminosity, as in the case of nirvikalpa samadhi, but there will be no awareness of a discrete ‘I’ — i.e., observer, experiencer, knower, thinker, etc.
No Proven Cause For The ‘Subject-Object’ Dyad
Since subject and object arise simultaneously, having therefore no causal relationship, we must consider the possibility of an alternative causal factor or impetus which gives rise to this dyad. One such possibility, for example, could be a biologically driven urge in the newborn to survive. Such an innate, biological ‘program’ could trigger a sense of ‘I-ness’ simultaneously with an awareness of the mother’s breast as means of survival. Such a hypothesis, however, presupposes an external, material reality underlying all appearance. Such a supposition is an inference and, admittedly, a very powerful one, but does not have the absolute certainty of direct experience. All such theories legitimately fall into the domain of the empirical sciences, to be alternatively validated, modified or rejected through further research, and all such theories — however credible — remain subject to doubt.
Objects Are Configurations Of Impressions
Having put forward the proposition that consciousness-impressions are the indeterminate ground from which the determinate subject-object dyad emerges, we will examine more closely how impressions are transformed into objects. An impression is any specific data that, when collocated with other specific data produces differentiation in an otherwise indeterminate field of somethingness. Impressions form the raw data that constitute objects. Objects are complexes of impressions: configurations which take form in consciousness and are revealed as phenomena.
The various collocations of impressions constitute, collectively, the complex universe of objects and events which we know. This world-appearance includes, necessarily, both the objective and subjective aspects of experience, since all objects of knowledge exist in relation to a knowing subject. The world-appearance necessarily includes an empirical locus or subject, since it is impossible to even imagine a universe except from the point of view of a subject which is located somewhere and sometime within that same universe.
Impressions Become The ‘Qualities’ Of Objects
With the birth of objects arrives the naming of different categories of impressions: the major categories being the five types of sense-data, specifically colours (seeing), sounds (hearing), tactile sensations (touching), flavors (tasting) and odors (smelling). Terms such as ‘hard’, ‘salty’, ‘blue’, ‘screech’, etc., are names given to specific impressions which are members of these five categories of sense. The names given to impressions are themselves subtle objects (ideas) which serve to distinguish specific impressions from the indeterminate mass of somethingness to which they belong. Once we give a name to an impression we turn it into something it hitherto was not — i.e., a quality (e.g., hot, sweet, blue, etc), and this can occur only after the subject-object duality has arisen. Furthermore, in their indeterminate state, impressions cannot be singled out and named until a number of them have been collocated into an object, such as a chair. These collocated impressions become objectified and named once they are recognized as belonging to a larger, complex whole — i.e., object or event, perceived by a cognizing subject. All the various names we can give to impressions fall into a general category called ‘qualities’, and qualities exist by virtue of belonging to objects and events and their relations. The world of our experience is a composition composed of impressions which have been transformed into the now determinate qualities of objects and events which make up our description of the universe. Each of these qualities is given a name, as are the objects and events which they comprise: what Indian philosophy calls ‘namarupa’ — i.e., the world of name and form.
Objects Infer But Do Not Prove An External World
Once a group of impressions are collocated they are known collectively as an object or event which, generally, is regarded by common sense as having a substantial, independent existence. Through this process the object manifests as an apparent material reality quite distinct from the knowing subject. Common sense also assumes that this material reality exists independently of the knower. In fact, however, these collocations are essentially interpretations drawn from an indeterminate ground of impressions and, as with any interpretation, they are subject to doubt. Thus, the same collocation of impressions that at one moment is interpreted as ‘snake’ may a moment later be reinterpreted as ‘rope’. Once a group of impressions are configured or objectified, these hitherto unnamed, indeterminate, immaterial, simple elements of experience are transformed into the named, differentiated, material qualities of an object. In this way our objects become increasingly reified; that is to say, they solidify as apparently discrete, material entities, quite distinct from and independent of the knowing subject to whom, in truth, they belong.
Time And Space As Contexts For Change And Form
Along with this process of configuration and reification of the various phenomena comes awareness of change and form in their respective contexts of time and space: change occurring in time, and form occurring in space. A chair, for example, is a phenomenon which in the very act of creation is given duration and extension, as well as location, somewhere and sometime within the general contexts of time and space. Time and space, as contexts, are not visible yet are inferred through observation of changing states and relations pertaining to objects and events. So long as the phenomenon ‘chair’ is held in awareness the chair exists; should this interpretation cease, ‘chair’ will dissolve back into the elements from which it was configured. The appearance ‘chair’ is a configuration superimposed upon the underlying, indeterminate ground of consciousness-impressions. Nevertheless, it now appears as a materially solid and independent object laid on the original flux. Thus, all the objective phenomena of the world-appearance, from the furthest galaxies to the minutiae of the organism, from what is exterior to what is interieur to the observer, are configured from and rest upon this indeterminate ground.
Experience And Knowledge Not Different From Consciousness
This conclusion is not to be confused with solipsism, which asserts that nothing exists beyond the contents of the mind. Here we are saying that what exists beyond any doubt is experience, the content of which — including the idea of the self or subject — is not different from consciousness. Beyond experience there may or may not be other independent, existing things, but these will never be known directly and positively for knowledge itself is of the nature of experience and therefore consciousness. Knowledge of an apparently independent, external thing (such as a chair) is not the Kantian ‘thing-in-itself’, and if we try to assert that knowledge of a thing is the ‘thing-in-itself’, then that thing is neither independent nor external to the knowing consciousness.
However compelling the inference that experience reveals the existence of a reality independent of consciousness, such independence must remain forever a mere possibility since it can never be directly verified. Besides hypothesis and inference, there is no bridge between experience and a reality external to experience. Indirect verification through inference at best presents an arguable case for an external, material universe, but never proof.
The notion of external reality has heuristic value with regard to the physical sciences. It is this heuristic principal that allows for the development of technology and continued research at all levels — from the microscopic to the macroscopic. Nevertheless, while science or philosophy may posit a material universe standing outside of consciousness and functioning in some sort of structural and dynamic correspondence to the world of our direct experience, this will never be proven absolutely; and while it is useful for practical purposes to work with this hypothesis, it is invalid to regard it as an unassailable truth.
The Primacy Of Consciousness
In this essay I have endeavoured to show that impressions are the manifest ground of the world-appearance. Due, however, to the fact that our daily experience is dominated by the perception of objects and their relations, this underlying ground of indeterminate impressions is easily overlooked. We assume that what we are seeing, hearing or touching is the thing itself, rather than a collocation of consciousness-impressions appearing as matter –i.e., name and form (namarupa).
We have shown that impressions have no independent existence and that, indeed, they are not different from consciousness. For this reason we have stated that impressions are more accurately termed, ‘consciousness-impressions’. Additionally, we have pointed out that while consciousness is a necessary condition for impressions, impressions are not a necessary condition for consciousness. Consciousness will persist without or with impressions, as has been established through the ancient and well-documented systems of Yoga and Vedanta. Practitioners of these systems have consistently testified to the accessibility of pure consciousness (nirvikalpa samadhi): a state free from impressions, thoughts or any form of appearance.
I have also argued that impressions, as the fundamental constituents of experience, predicate both existence and consciousness. There are impressions, therefore there is existence — i.e., the existence of impressions. Furthermore, since impressions represent the most fundamental level of direct experience apart from consciousness itself, it is impossible to prove beyond any doubt whether their existence has been caused by something external to consciousness. External causes may be inferred, but all such inferential knowledge is unproven.
What can be affirmed, without doubt, is the being of impressions and the being of consciousness. The appearance of impressions predicates both consciousness and existence, not as a duality, but as a unity; that is, consciousness and existence are two terms for the same thing. I have also pointed out that impressions cannot manifest in the absence of consciousness, whereas consciousness exists with or without impressions. And this leads us, finally, to the conclusion that consciousness itself, being indisputable, is the certain ground of all experience, thereby giving it primacy over all other possibilities.
Author: Duart Maclean
AUM TAT SAT
(Supreme Absolute Truth)