You're wide awake and see something on the floor in your house and know instantly that it's a piece of rope.
You're drugged or drunk and see something on the floor. Not sure what it is, you investigate and depending on your state of inebriation, you will realize it's a rope or imagine it's a snake.
You're fast asleep and a cobra slithers across your body. You may or may not wake up!
In each of the above, your consciousness is fully functional but your awareness is at different levels. Consciousness and Awareness are often confused for each other leading to much confusion on the question: What is consciousness?
According to Tantra, everything is consciousness: memory of a piece of music, of craving for an ice cream, pain of an ankle sprain, or the happiness of love. Your heart is beating, your lungs are functioning, and your guts are slowly moving the food inside you... you are not aware of it all the time but you are conscious all the time.
Food on the plate soon becomes a part of you. Air that is outside gets into your lungs and becomes a part of you. Your dead skin becomes a part of the environment on a daily basis. Your clothes are as much a part of you when it’s bitterly cold as your car is a part of your consciousness when you're driving. The external becomes the internal - not only breath but also the things we see and touch. The sensations of the external objects reverberate within us. It's all consciousness. When something becomes a part of us, can we not say that we have become a part of it? If I eat a banana, the banana (because it's smaller) becomes a part of me. But if I eat an elephant, can I comfortably say that I have become a part of the elephant?!
Consciousness - Sub and Un!
Words such as sub-conscious and unconscious only complicate the matter because they both refer to one mental state: being awake! The popular notion of consciousness is thus erroneously linked to being awake (conscious), being half-asleep (drunk/falling asleep/waking up and therefore sub-conscious), and asleep (unconscious). When we analyze these mental states, we see how grossly inaccurate we are about human consciousness. For the sake of this article let's define the different states of sleep/wakefulness as aware, sleepy, and unaware. We will also bifurcate "aware" as follows: aware of something, aware of myself, aware of being self-aware.
The last one we call Self-Awareness: Thinking about "thinking about me."
In common words, we call this experience, therefore all experiences are part of consciousness. I experience things even in my dreams (state of being completely unaware) and that too becomes a part of consciousness. Often, our dreams are so important that they used in psychological analysis or in determining important events (such as Tibetan monks using their dreams to interpret wakeful reality).
Experiences are referred to as qualia in the sense that each experience can be unique or the same experience can produce different sensations for different people. Subjective experiences are just that - subjective. And we may not be able describe them because they are so unique and personal. We often don't find words to satisfactorily express those experiences. So we are in a dilemma - we are conscious of something but we can't explain it in words. Perhaps we could record the brain waves but while the human brain is the same in all humans the human mind is as unique as there are humans! Brain waves and brain imaging are not going to explain qualia!
This is one of the most important aspect of consciousness that has eluded researchers develop neuroscience beyond the treatment of some diseases. Electrical stimulation of specific parts of the brain can evoke specific memories but they can't be generalized into a language to comprehend consciousness.
Open brain surgeries - where the patient is awake and only local anesthesia is used - are conducted
to isolate the region in epileptic seizures
Cognitive Science is different from consciousness studies. The former has made tremendous advances because it is concerned with understanding and modifying behavior based on observations but the latter is stuck at the level of word play. One example is the phrase "conscious awareness" - as if we need to define something in such hair-splitting detail! Therefore, while we know (perhaps sub-consciously) what consciousness is and isn't, we still can't put a finger on it. We know a moving car is not conscious and we know a sleeping cat is consciousness but try isolating the determining factors and we get completely foxed.
Many scholars take consciousness for granted and try to study it purely from the point of view of observational data: What is present in brain function? And what is absent in brain damage? Brain Science therefore gives us a pretty picture of what the brain can do and what it cannot do. It gives us different types of awareness wherein we know ourselves - have complete confidence in our identity - and acquire knowledge of our environment. Different brain regions "light up" under different situations!
But what light pattern or "photograph" of the neuronal network should we attribute to consciousness. Any neuroscientist would be glad to know if consciousness exists purely inside the brain because scholars have postulated that it may not be so.
Tantra explores consciousness by categorizing the psychological and physical interaction into 36 levels of experience. These are the 36 Tattvas of Shaiva Tantra!
A Billion Plus
When a particular set of neurons or a specific neuronal network (biological neural network) gets activated a memory is evoked. Similarly, when we study something or come across something new, neuronal networks are created: dendrites connect to other nerve cells through synaptic connections. All this is not under our control. It happens on its own, in the same way as the billion plus nerve cells in the spinal chord react to stimuli on their own leading to what we call the "reflex action." Similarly, the cerebellum controls our balance and complex movements when walking or running. It seems that we also take our bipedal balance for granted!
If the spinal cord and the cerebellum are somehow damaged, several handicaps may be experienced - from paralysis to not having the same adeptness with their fingers. Consciousness however is not impacted one bit. Trauma can also cause amnesia, but the amnesiac knows himself - is conscious of his identity - even if he does not know his name or does not remember some or all of his past. He may have forgotten everything but his consciousness is intact! It's quite apparent that the entire cerebral system is not important for consciousness; while it participates in the conscious state the brain is not responsible for consciousness.
Many experiments have been conducted wherein different images are shown to the right and left eyes. The brain rightly interprets the images by alternately focusing on each. Over 80 billion neurons in the brain and somehow the mechanism of consciousness processes information as a serial processor - one bit of information at a time. Albeit it does this very rapidly so we get the impression of managing many things simultaneously.
Brain processes are simple in the sense that they break down everything: information may be sent that you are seeing an image but not what the image is. In the next step, the information about the image is sent, and so on in terms of responding to the image. Again, because this happens rather quickly, we tend to focus only on the response and not on the process of information flow itself. Thus, consciousness forms at the information gathering stage.
Tantra differentiates reality in the context of tattvas where each tattva goes from simple to complex and not necessarily from the external to the internal. Tantra Yoga also does not bother itself with the reductionist approach of finding the source of consciousness - it concerns itself with manipulating it and expanding it.
Objectivity & Subjectivity
Perception of reality is simplistic when the components of reality are separated from each other and thought to be mutually exclusive. For simple phenomena, this works and one lauds Objectivity. However, the conscious mind creates many a complex pattern of neural activity for Objectivity to handle. In such cases, Subjectivity is the only recourse.
If a sane and a crazy person are arguing, then there is no question of objectivity because there can be no common frame of reference if there are only two people with opposite views. When this example is modified to represent opposing emotions within a person (sane or insane), then consciousness is fractured into dualism.
Because the cerebral cortex gives us much of our logic and awareness to deal with the physical world, we desperately desire to have consciousness reside there. Sadly, consciousness does not make this region of the brain its exclusively domain. Epileptic patients with grand-mal seizures often have parts of the brain removed to prevent the onset of seizure or to prevent the seizure from spreading. When tissue from the prefrontal cortex is removed, there was no impact on consciousness. However, when parts of the posterior cortex were excised, the patients could not recognize faces or identify color. These are important aspects of consciousness but not all of it, and evidently the patients slowly learned to compensate for their loss.
Subjective experience also makes the consciousness reside in other parts of the brain or other parts of the body. Feeling something in the heart or having a gut-feeling may actually be literal!
Brain damage may or may not lead to vegetative states and even in vegetative state the person may be conscious but not able to communicate. If we don't know what consciousness is then how can one identify its presence or absence in abnormal situations?
The Conscious Space
Tantra classifies consciousness as the entire space within which an experience occurs. Experience presumes intelligence and intelligence presumes life. We will not get into a discussion about defining intelligence or life but let it suffice to say that both are qualities that we recognize most of the time - most of us don't speak to lampposts! By not isolating (but expanding) consciousness, Tantra takes even life and intelligence out of the creature and into the conscious space of experience.
Consciousness is ever expanding and ever contracting; when we realize this we can learn techniques to expand and contract our consciousness at will.
Consciousness research has shown that a small set of neural networks are incapable of creating consciousness - we certainly need something massive and interconnected. Over 80 billion neurons that are interconnected and capable of forming newer connections gives us a hypothesis for consciousness creation.
Kundalini Tantra Yoga provides us techniques that help us tap into dormant or unused parts of the brain. If simple yogic postures such as shambhavi mudra can stimulate neurons then complex exercises from Kundalini Chakra Tantra can certainly tap into our autonomic nervous system. Therefore, while modern science continues to grapple with consciousness, ancient Tantra Philosophy has given us methods to control and expand it. Tantra does not isolate consciousness but expands it: it reaches deep into our minds and into the farthest realms of the universe.
Finally, it's quite possible that we will find evidence to demonstrate how consciousness is "formed" and not "caused." Presently, it should suffice to know that consciousness is infinite and we humans with our finite prefrontal cortex can still tap into it.