No-self calls for an alternative model for conceptualizing reality as a human being. This post outlines what I think is the most accurate model for individualized subjective experience – at least the most accurate I have come across so far. In this model experience consists not of a self and that which is other than self, but rather just two fundamental elements: consciousness and its contents.
I’m not aware of any name for this model (if you are, let me know) so I’m just calling it “consciousness and its contents” or C&IC for short. I did not invent this terminology, or this way of thinking about things, I’m just laying it out in the clearest way I know how. From what I understand C&IC has roots in ancient Hindu philosophy, and origins that perhaps go back even earlier.
The claim is that subjective reality as a human being consists only of consciousness and its contents. Consciousness is the field of awareness within which all experience happens, and experience itself is the contents.
Experience means everything that there is awareness of in subjective reality. That is all thoughts, including memories of the past and projections into the future. It includes emotions, physical sensations, and other sensory phenomena like sight, sound and smell. It includes the sense of “I” that sometimes arises in the midst of all this.
Consciousness (the way I am using the term here) is the field of awareness within which all of this exists. It is ever-present; an open field that contains all experience, so long as you are alive. No one knows what happens to consciousness when we die.
One can conceivably maintain (or aim to maintain) a consciousness and its contents distinction rather than a self-other or subject-object distinction. This has some interesting implications.
Collapse of Subject-Object Distinction
In a conventional self-other model, the subject is the self and the object is that which is other than self – generally the outside physical world. We imagine ourselves as a distinct being interfacing with externalities that are separate from us.
As we saw in the last post, this is a false distinction. There is only consciousness and its contents: what seems to be you and what seems to be other than you are all equally phenomena arising and passing away. This is the core of no-self and C&IC – experience as a flow of processes happening within a neutral field of awareness.
Collapse of the subject-object distinction can be experienced directly as well as understood conceptually. It happens most often through meditation or psychedelic experience, but also in everyday life. There are moments or even extended periods where you “lose yourself” so completely in a task or activity that the perceived separation between self and other dissolves.
States of flow are one example of this. In a flow state there is no subjective difference between the being performing the activity and the activity itself. There is no “do-er” who is separate from what is being done. There is only “doing” or “being”. There is just a flow of processes happening.
Collapse of Internal-External Distinction
A close corollary to the above (and maybe just another way of saying the same thing) is that the distinction between internal and external phenomena – at least subjectively – also dissolves under the C&IC model.
We tend to imagine that we are somewhere inside our body, interfacing with the rest of the world that is outside of us. Usually the perceived boundary is the skin. We imagine the physical phenomena happening inside our skin as separate from that which happens outside of it. Again, as we saw in the last post, this distinction is basically arbitrary, especially when you consider the body’s passage through time.
We also view internal mental experience (thoughts) as separate from internal physical experience (a pain in your knee), to at least some degree. And we perceive both of these to be another step removed from external physical happenings in the outside world.
But under the C&IC model, the distinction between all these starts to get fuzzy. The experience of a pain in your knee and a noise you hear from the room next door – subjectively – are the same. They are just sensory phenomena arising and passing away within the field of awareness that is consciousness.
The noise arises within the boundaries of consciousness, just like the pain in the knee. It arises out of your control, just like everything else. Subjectively there is no difference between “inside” and “outside” of you, as it is all equally within consciousness.
Now of course there remains the important difference that you feel the pain in your knee, while the person next to you does not, but you both hear the noise from the room next door.
That leads to questions like the following: Why do different consciousnesses contain different experiences? Why does consciousness seem to be attached to a body (at least most of the time) and contain the experiences of that body? Is each consciousness truly individuated, or is that just another part of the illusion?
Questions of this kind generally come back to the central question of where consciousness originates from and why. This is called the hard problem of consciousness, and we have yet to find a solution.
Theories of Consciousness
There are two general lines of thinking when it comes to understanding the origins and nature of consciousness.
The first is that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain. The fundamental assumption here being that consciousness arises spontaneously when a physical system – some combination of matter – contains certain properties and meets certain preconditions. Exactly what those properties and preconditions are, and how or why this happens, we don’t know.
Following this theory, consciousness emerges from the brain, brains exist in bodies, and that is why consciousness is localized to the brain and body. The fact that altering the brain also alters consciousness supports this theory. However, phenomena like near-death and out-of-body experiences, among other things, call it into question.
The second theory is that consciousness is non-local to the brain and/or separate from material reality altogether. According to this theory, consciousness itself must then be a fundamental aspect of the universe, distinct from physical matter. There is also the theory that everything has consciousness to some degree, all the way down to the smallest particle. This is called panpsychism.
That is an extremely broad general overview and there are many, many variations of these theories, which may be of interest to someone more philosophically minded than myself. If that sparks your curiosity you can read more about it here.
But regardless of the answer to the hard problem (if one even exists), the nonexistence of the self and primacy of C&IC experientially hold true.
What’s moving – consciousness or the contents?
Another way to conceptualize C&IC as a model for experience is to imagine consciousness as remaining still and the contents just moving. Here’s what I mean:
Normally we perceive the body as moving around in the physical world, and carrying along with it the mind and the ego-structure/sense of self. As the body travels through 3D space, it feels like consciousness – the field of awareness within which all of this happens – is “along for the ride”.
But if you imagine consciousness as a kind of window into this reality, you can equally conceptualize the field of awareness as remaining still and only the contents as moving. That which is inside the boundaries of the window changes, but the window itself remains still. Subjectively this is as accurate as imagining that consciousness is being carried around by the body in 3D space.
There is also the “headless way” technique, which is another method of bringing about a similar type of understanding.
Consciousness and Mind-Body Connection
C&IC also accounts better for mind-body connection than the self-other model. Mind-body interconnectedness runs so deep that I don’t think it is accurate to think of them as separate at all.
Mental phenomena undeniably influences material reality – consider the placebo effect as just one clear example. Or consider that everything around you now – everything that has ever been created by human beings – first existed as an idea in someone’s mind before it became physically real.
Material reality also affects mental experience. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever gotten sick and noticed your thoughts change. Or if your circumstances have ever changed and consequently, your thoughts. It happens all the time.
This interconnectedness is hard to square if you maintain that the mind and body are separate, or even that they are together one unit that is still separate from the rest of experience.
But if it is all part of the same plane – the contents of consciousness – the interconnectedness starts to make much more sense. In this way, C&IC may be useful for explaining the mind-body connection.
Altogether, C&IC is more “true” than the conventional self-other model in that it is a more accurate representation of subjective reality. I also believe there are good moral reasons for adopting it. In short, this perspective reduces suffering on the level of the individual as well as improving behaviour in the outside world, which leads to less suffering for others. I will describe this in more detail in a future post.