Increasing Subtlety in Conscious Awareness
We can think of consciousness in a variety of ways. The scientifically supported vision, at least to a degree, is one of awareness as an emergent quality of competing and eating biological organisms, kind of the most aware wins. If you want to avoid being lunch you need to sense what is out there that could eat you, recognise it, and then rapidly react in a way that stops you going down its digestive tract.
At the same time you need to be aware of what is out there that you can eat, recognise it, catch it and put it down your digestive tract.
This great restaurant view of awareness and of consciousness is this simple.
At the same time an organism needs to recognise another of its own kind that it can breed and reproduce with. This biological view of consciousness is simple, the most aware, the most conscious wins. It eats more, gets eaten less and reproduces more successfully. Job done. This is a nihilistic perspective to say the least, there is no meaning to any of it, it’s just what happens in competing biological systems. Philosophically the response is – get used to it and enjoy your lunch!
Arguably awareness and consciousness are functions of the second law of thermodynamics. As the universe expands unevenly there are vortices and fluctuations in the overall expansive pattern. These encourage a decrease in entropy. Increase in entropy is the natural tendency of all energy to level out and disorder to increase. In energetic vortices such as solar systems the opposite is temporarily (in astronomical terms) true, entropy decreases. As entropy decreases life (which is ordered and a decrease in entropy) has a tendency to arise. As life arises, awareness and consciousness have a tendency to arise as emergent qualities.
Awareness here is the sum possible of what one can be aware of given sensory limitations.
Consciousness is that part of awareness of which one is actively cognisant of. Attention is a focal direction conditioned and less than conscious or conscious within the field of awareness. Just the way I’m playing with these terms in this Blog. It feels worth while for me to have a way of defining these terms.
We are aware through our sensory mechanisms.
Different organisms have sense organs that make sense of the vibrational web of space-time in different ways. They are all limited and all give different perceptual capacities. From the great restaurant view they are all about not being eaten and yet eating, and also about breeding as much as possible, as successfully as possible so your offspring don’t become lunch.
Organisms parse out the vibrational web of space-time in various ways. Most of us life forms have sense organs that respond to photons, all plants are phototropic, eagles can see around eight times as far as we can. Bees view life from the ultra-violet end of the electromagnetic spectrum. Some snakes, frogs and biting flies see in terms of heat patterns from the other end of the electromagnetic spectrum, the infra-red. They do this very successfully as you will know if you have ever been hunted down by mosquitoes in the dark.
The most primeval sense is the sense of smell and this has rapid and powerful effects on the brain as is evidenced by the fact there is no synaptic junction between the organs of smell and the brain. Every other sense has synaptic intervention. Many creatures have a profoundly strong sense of smell, many orders of magnitude more than ours. Bears for example are suspected of having a sense of smell that is over two thousand times more refined and robust than ours. That is a whole different world! A shark can pick up the scent of blood over a mile away. A whole different world. Scent for us is inextricably linked with memory.
Lets briefly mention hearing as of course many creatures echo locate and therefore have profound hearing, moths hear at least fifteen times better than we do, they have to dodge bats and bats are fast, hungry and very efficient echo locaters.
Catfish are around seventeen to eighteen times more efficient at tasting their environment than we are. The catfish also ranks as one of the creatures with the most refined super sense of touch. Hence the picture!
This is simply to point out that our senses give us a very limited awareness of the world around us, having said that they work for us to reproduce rather well.
Because we have another super sense, this is the sense making sense. The sense that makes sense of the other senses. This is mind, awareness, consciousness, attentional capacities, meaning making and all the functions of our nervous system. There is of course plenty of scientific evidence coming in these days that our intelligence is originated in our body, works best when we are embodied and can interocept and feel in an integrated way into our own flesh. Please read Guy Claxton’s Intelligence in the Flesh.
Disintegrated awareness as if body and awareness, attention and mind were two different qualities is a product of a disembodied culture, a culture shamed and under appreciative of the fleshy organic, nature of intelligence.
Another key sense we humans have is the sense-of-self. This is largely a function of the midline cortical regions of our cortex including the default mode network, medial prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex. These synergise to give us a sense of who we are as a separate feeling organism, and how we relate to other separate-feeling organisms. An unintegrated and less than healthy version of this is self-obsessive and self-referential. Donald Trump is the iconic modern version of this. The totem for the age of Narcissus.
An integrated and healthier version of the self-sense is more fluid in terms of self-identity, self-narrative and self-referentiality. It is more interested in relationship than being right, more interested in the dance of mutual communication than being in control. This is the kind of organisation we seek for our systems through a healthy application of meditation, yoga and mindfulness. I say healthy application as some styles of practice tend to enhance and glorify spiritualised self-referentiality, we’ve all seen it!
Some of the upsurge of interest in psychedelics in terms of their healing properties and mind expanding properties are now being examined. One of the articles I was reading on psilocybin was theorising that it also can help reduce self-referentiality and in so doing reduce the effects of depression.
Depression is partly associated with meaninglessness, partly associated with obsessive self-referentiality, partly associated with dorsal vagal nerve over activation and deactivation of the ventral vagus and social engagement systems of the cranial nerves five, seven, nine, ten and eleven. See Stephen Porges Polyvagal theory.
Psychedelics may well help resolve depression, traumatic issues, help grow focus and efficiency (in conjunction with a meditation practice) and promote overall connection to the systemic world of other lifeform. All good stuff. Of course there are risks, one of these being to a less than healthy sense-of-self. Such work has to be approached with caution and good research to understand the parameters for positive healing effect.
Psychedelics were also being theorised as dissolving the sensorial filters and enabling us to perceive more of how the universe is as a web of vibration, a web that is parsed, filtered and semanticised by our brains. Necessary for finding lunch and a mate and not becoming lunch (at least not yet!) but not that good at understanding the paradoxical and non-dichotomous seamlessness of the vibrational web of space-time. Human brains do difference, comparison, polarity really well. They do not do seamlessness, connectivity and big picture unicity that well. It’s not yet been evolved in. Psychedelics may well be part of this process of undoing the sensory hallucinations of the brain and its sense organs too. Time will tell.
So what of subjectivity in all this?
First of all it is all we have. Objectivity is a good attempt at non-subjectivity, yet limited by how much we can distance ourselves from involvement in what we are exploring and testing, which is of course hugely limited. That aside our attempts at objectivity yield remarkable results. I pray we can be honest about our incapacity for deep subjectivity. We cannot distance ourselves from the universe, we are it. My view is that honest subjectivity doing its best at objectivity is pretty good.
What is my experience?
What is my belief?
How does it fit with yours?
What evidence is their for me to support these with?
Can i hold experience, belief and meaning lightly?
Can they just be like the best theory of fit, flexible with incoming information?
When we are working within our sense fields and that is all we have, it is always partial information, always the best theory of fit. If we can dance in a mutuality of subjectivity whilst noticing the conditioning we have received around ours then we stand a chance of finding team efforts of working with and transcending and co-evolving our biology much more successful. The gripping of self-referential states and self-obsession (my subjectivity is better than yours!) is a high route to conflict and warfare, look at the world around you. The work of meditation and mindfulness to make self-referentiality transparent is crucial for our times.
Some yogic teaching teach about illusion. The fact is that there is nothing solid, real, defined or permanent in existence, at least nothing we can yet find. So yes everything of solidity, definition and permanence that our mind conjures up is really not so. On this level it is an illusion. It is also real. Smack your self and feel it. In terms of our neural experience and how the senses and mind make sense of everything, it is a very real illusion.
It is illusion-no-illusion
There is an old method and teaching from the yogic world that has been described as the five illusory sheaths of subjective experience. It is a method of going deeper into awareness, into more refined experiences of expansive consciousness and a tool for focusing attention. Remember the kind of yoga I understand is not interested in dogma, it is interested in direct experience and how this changes your subjective perspective. This is rooted in methods of practice. Yoga is in essence a religion of method. A way of reconnecting to the seamless nature of things, beyond the experience of separation, solidity, definition and permanence, not through dogma and belief (though these can be methods!) but through experiential methods that you can practice and weave into your life.
So what is this old teaching?
It originates as far as we know from the Taittiriya Upanishad. It is presented in many ways and I am going to present it in my own way. I accept this subjective bias. This method is the pancha maya koshas. For short they are called the koshas. The five illusory sheaths of our subjective experience. It can also be seen as five key experiences of being alive. The word kosha is often translated as sheaths of our body. The word maya means illusory, so we have the five illusory sheaths of the human experience.
These sheaths are illusory because from the perspective of subtle consciousness, they are not as solid or real as our mind would have us believe. They are all flow, flowing earth, flowing water, flowing air and ephemeral feelings and thoughts. Coming to terms with how things really are is one of the gifts of working with the koshas and working with yogic method.
The Great Verb
Vedanta teaches that the absolute which it give the verb Brahman to, transcends and includes all these five sheaths, the unreal bodies. The koshas are sometimes understood as ‘entrapments of the soul’. One of the risks of seeing these sheaths as illusory, as entrapments, is demeaning and dismissing them. The second problem here is being the soul as solid, real and defined when this sense-of-continuity in us, the sense-of-soul is also simply Brahman. This dismissal and separation is not kind and often leads to a monastic withdrawal from life. Kindness and compassion or in yogic speak ‘non-harming’ or ahimsa is the first rule of a yogic practitioner, everything else comes second. Kindness begins here at home in our subjective experience, not in an idea of what truth is, of what real is.
One of the powers of working with these sheaths is full embodiment in all the qualities of being alive, whilst acknowledging they are flowing, fragile, vulnerable expressions of our deeper nature and the humility that this brings.
The Taittiriya Upanishad, which also has the first known use of the word yoga, is the third amongst the oldest upanishads. It mentions the five sheaths calling them – “The self consisting of food proceeds to the self consisting of life force that proceeds to the self consisting of mind that proceeds to the self consisting of consciousness that proceeds to the self consisting of bliss” These are all verbs, flowing states and please remember after this is that which is the meta-verb – Brahman.
In Tantric literature we can find koshas as increasingly refined and subtle experiences of existence that resolve into the absolute (divinity) as a profound method to work with deepening as awareness and increasing in consciousness. They are also tools for attention, what are you attending to right now and why?
The great chain, the holarchy of being and knowing, or awareness, outlines levels of reality and levels of knowing this reality, levels of consciousness.
Cognition in western think refers to the apprehension of exterior objects. Knowledge has come to mean their classification, the capacity to reduce them to their component pieces and an understanding of the relationships that an exterior object might have with other objects, such as its ecology.
Other forms of consciousness such as insight, visions and dreams are mostly excluded from the realm of knowing in western thought. Such forms of consciousness are simply subjective experiences. Yet this is actually all we really have, our direct experience.
When specific developmental processes are studied, such as moral development, self-knowledge and so on, it is found that cognitive development is necessary, but not sufficient for these other developments, just as knowing the alphabet is necessary but not sufficient for studying philosophy. Interestingly yogic philosophy is always about finding freedom in the matrix of being. Freedom from suffering and freedom to be, freedom to live optimally. All the teachings of yoga (I include all the methods of Buddhist yoga here) are about methods to know what it is to be free from suffering, free to achieve our optimal potential as a being. Any other kind of philosophical inquiry is pretty much mind blah.
Western developmental psychology also stops at the level of formal mind and a reasonably healthy self-construct.
Post-formal, transpersonal development is that which goes beyond the healthy self-construct. This is the essence of Yoga or Yogasara. The necessary pre-condition for depth yoga, for Yogasara is a reasonably well developed, healthy enough self-construct. Without this in place there is insufficient strength to make it transparent. Making it transparent means we get to see our shadows and motives, one has to be strong and courageous and ready to do this kind of work.
The healthy self-construct is necessary but not sufficient for the job in hand. It gets you onto the yoga mat, onto the meditation cushion, reading inspirational and developmental theories and texts and then it’s job is over, except to help you navigate the four dimensions of space-time and get you around.
Change moves from the conscious level, from imagination of what is possible, through intention, through the bio-energetic into the physical, the somatic. Hence the effectiveness of the process of meditation, the power of placebo and nocebo and the requirement for a clear bio-energetic (pranic) system so that the flow of consciousness through mind into embodiment is functional.
Physical illness in the yogic view is foreshadowed by blockages in the flow of life-energy as the subtle body. Healing in yogic method involves working primarily at this level of bio-energy and mind, and the body whilst appreciated, loved and respected, slowly follows suit. With the proviso that is the appropriate karmic movement for that individual. Karma is a whole different Blog. Karma in brief is the web of causes, conditions and arising consequences.
Through removing energetic blockages and correcting damage on the level of the subtle body, Tantric practitioners get to know them selves as more and more subtle experiencing and then seek to prevent physical disease and emotional and mental imbalance. This is all done whilst understanding that health is never a permanent outcome, it is always about sustaining balance, homeostasis. However a healthy body enables you to practice.
Let’s look at the two gross koshas…
Anna Maya Kosha
This is the sheath of food, composed of the elements earth, water and fire. For yoga geeks this equates with the guna tamas. Tamas is simply understood as the weave of appearances that manifests as solidity.
We experience this kosha as awareness when we engage in body and breath practices of semantics that take its into realisation of fleshy awareness.
Intelligence here moves as feeling and sensation. We liberate this sheath as we breathe and move and find deeper and deeper awareness in the weave of tissues as tendons, fascia, muscles and bone, organ and blood. When we can find it’s miraculous and wonder full nature and yet also allow it to be as it is, neither gripping onto appearances, sensations or feelings then we find freedom in and as this kosha. When we die we willed go of the physicality of existence as the body gets heavy, cold and maybe riddled with unpleasant feeling before it goes numb. We prepare for this certainty in practice and get accustomed to letting go. We will have to eventually. We practice letting go so we can live fully in each and every moment in full courage and fearlessness. We become more than anna maya kosha, yet also it. We become spacious awareness in intimate dance with aware space and this is much more than flesh, yet fully includes all of it in all its miraculous, juicy beauty and mortality.
Prana Maya Kosha
The sheath of bio-energy, the moist interstitial, fascial web flowing with ions from the polarised charge of space and earth is our pranic anatomy. This pranic anatomy in yoga think contains the lines of flow or nadis (meridians) and the awareness centres or chakras.
Chakras are also the conduits of connection between the various sheaths. Chakras cease to exist beyond their opening as ananda maya kosha.
Prana maya kosha is composed of the elements fire and air. For yoga geeks it is connected with the rajas guna, kinesis. Rajas is the weave of spacetime that manifests as the electromagnetic spectrum, gravity and anti-gravity.
We liberate this kosha through breathwork and pranayama, through working with vibrational practices that remind us of our direct relationship to the field of energy that everything is.
The more subtle koshas are…
Mano Maya Kosha
The sheath of feeling mind, cognition, perceptive position, rationality and selfing. Chitta, manas, bodhi and ahamkara. Here we find opinion, concept, belief, values, viewpoint, self-construct, story, semantics and intellect. Connected with the elements air and space, mano maya kosha is the seat of selfing in its narrative form. As such it looks down into separation, reinforcing its position and it’s version of what it considers to be ‘reality’.
Or, it looks deeper in inquiry and begins the movement into transcendence. It is often the cognitive appreciation of seamlessness that leads people deeper into the transparency of selfing that is a necessary part of waking up to what is. Clarifying mind through working with values and seeing the nature of belief are facets o practice that can help liberate this kosha. I find fooling and story-telling to be really useful tools too as they make obvious and the narrative constructing aspect of us humans. Ultimately it is mindfulness and meditation that brings transparency to the contents of mind, to thew self-construct and leads inexorably into the transpersonal.
Vijnana Maya Kosha
This sheath of consciousness which is beyond individuation includes insight and wise discrimination. It is a deep seeing and knowing of the nature of the joined-up-ness. It sees how we react in fear in the face of emptiness. It sees that there are no causes, no thing to blame, and no one who is responsible. Yet it takes responsibility and hours the seamless, whole and therefore sacred order of things, the unicity of consciousness.
The most subtle (some call it causal) kosha
Ananda Maya Kosha
The sheath of bliss they circumference of radiant, uncluttered awareness (also called cit in Sanskrit). It is the last frontier before the recognition of the nature of the vastness of divine totality presents itself as who we truly are. Qualities of the cosmos as beingness that is also empty, bliss that is also empty, joy and all seeing wisdom that exist and yet don’t exist, because they are also empty. Ananda may kosha as the very fringe of this is equated to the sattva guna, lucidity.
Ananda maya kosha also inter-penetrates all the previous sheaths and is the body of blissful consciousness experienced in pristine moments of beauty and in advanced meditation.
These koshas aren’t separate layers, but mutually inter-penetrating relationships of form, consciousness, energy and emptiness. Ananda-maya-kosha can be mapped synchronously as deep in the core of our living experience, and at the same time that which permeates and surrounds our whole life, it is centre and circumference at the same time.
From the most subtle that is completely empty arises and also is luminous, all-radiating, all-pervading consciousness. Emptiness, consciousness and bliss through to the densest, most condensed form of materialised consciousness as our physical body are mapped and located through the practices of these correspondingly finer sheaths that penetrate, pervade and thus contain, the grosser ones. And it is in our physical body that we find all these sheaths. As we practice physical practices, breath and energy practices and meditation, these subtle qualities present themselves in increasing transparency and lucidity.
Matter is penetrated, pervaded and sustained by prana, it is prana. Prana is penetrated, pervaded and sustained by the forms of consciousness. Deep consciousness is penetrated, pervaded and sustained by the radiance of sublime inspiration, spiritual joy and unutterable bliss that makes all more condensed forms of consciousness temporarily fade into transparency.
And, all the levels of consciousness dissolving away into the pregnant possibility of uncluttered emptiness are finally realised as one flow, two sides of the same coin, absolute and relative, formless and form, the one taste.
This is the potency of practices such as the Maya Koshas that have time travelled, held in the Indian yogic diaspora for several thousand years.
Now, let’s practice!