The Philosophy of Consciousness

My old desk

My old desk


Being born is rather disorienting. But ‘I’ really wasn’t born until this body was roughly two years old, when the self-model develops. I have no memory of my infancy because ‘I’ simply wasn’t there. 

But at some point, after a nebulous early childhood in which everything is wonder-full and experience is ridden as a wave, we come into this kind of coagulated awareness — ‘I’. 

There’s no going back — once it arrives, ‘I’ am here to stay. Philosophy is the practice of figuring out what best to do about that. 

If philosophy explores how to live, and — this is my wager — our lives are each of us experiencing consciousness, then what is philosophy but a practice of cultivating consciousness?

That’s how I envision it, anyway. Four years in academic philosophy made it clear that often, it studies almost everything other than oneself. Exploring, expressing, and reconfiguring consciousness is the stuff of hippies, artists, and shamans. Not philosophy departments. 

But severing itself from experiential self-knowledge drives philosophy’s trend towards impotence. It grows diluted with talk devoid of action. It’s writing, meditating, howling poetry in the streets, going to therapy, dancing; philosophy isn’t a thing, but a process. It’s a dive into the great deep trunks of the mind, the unseen roots of experience. A dislodging of mental patterns hardened into the consciousness of ‘I’. Like cutting away dead leaves from plants to beckon growth, pruning consciousness of inhibitory mental habits renders that ‘I’ unfixed, spacious, and porous.

For example, this essay is not a ‘piece’ of philosophy. Philosophy may occur as I write it, maybe even while you read it, but not in-between. Philosophy is not stagnant. It’s more like the flame that occurs when a piece of flint sparks in the presence of butane gas; it requires interaction.

Philosophy as Meditation

One of the most impressive feats in philosophy today is to understand Immanuel Kant. I’ve bashed my own head against his books a few times —  little gets through. Perhaps I’m bitter, but frankly, I’m more philosophically impressed by someone who meditates everyday than someone who’s written a thesis on Kant. The Kantian thesis is an intellectual study of someone else’s mind, while meditation is an experiential study of one’s own. 

True, reading Kant can in itself be made a meditation, as can almost anything if meditation be defined as a sustained inversion of awareness (upon the present). British philosopher Galen Strawson writes: 

“…the long and devoted practice of philosophy…really does change one over time. It makes one’s mind large, in some peculiar manner. It seems to me that the professional practice of philosophy is itself a kind of spiritual discipline, in some totally secular sense of ‘spiritual’…”

But more broadly, meditation scarcely features in Western philosophical discourse, and the reason why eludes me as much as the meaning of Kant’s writing. It’s a direct practice for studying, and improving, the nature of experience. If philosophy is to explore and improve consciousness, as suggested at the outset, could there be a more fitting method? 

I’m not suggesting any philosopher who doesn’t sit with crossed legs and closed eyes is a fraud (though doing so while following the breath should be a staple in any ‘Intro to Philosophy’ course); meditative methods are vast and idiosyncratic. 

But meditation currently occupies only a minor niche in Western philosophy. If we aren’t focusing on our own mental constructs, what are we doing? Our lives are not governed by ideas of the philosophical canon; our lives are governed by our own ideas (that said, there are few thrills like finding yourself in the writings of another). 

And yet, meditation is not a panacea. Examples are abundant of diligent meditators who’re also, undeniably, total assholes. The thorns stuck together in our congealed selves often require multiple surgical tools to remove. 

For (all too) many of us, to live is to accumulate insecurities and traumas. Suffering is frustratingly ubiquitous. These human wounds often remain unknown or repressed, calcifying in the unconscious. Meditation alone may not be able to dislodge them. Nothing that remains subconscious can be processed, and unprocessed trauma impedes any attempt at living well.

So, just as we sweep a floor before mopping, or till soil before planting, progress in philosophy requires a reckoning with these emotional clots.

The Spectrum of Consciousness

Initially, philosophy may constitute figuring out what past events still emotionally deregulate us. What traumas lurk beneath our conscious minds, tucked away in dark and dusty corners that still hold influence upon our mentalities? Internalized traumas are like unseen puppeteers, and we may go our whole lives without ever following the strings back to their source. But if we don’t, we cannot live beyond their leash. Mental autonomy — a term Thomas Metzinger describes as the purpose of meditation, a certain input for philosophy’s project of living well — will remain obstructed. 

How do we follow the strings back to emotional clots? Despite the orgy of practices for surfacing buried traumas that was the 60’s, today’s dominant method remains the traditional doctor/patient interaction. Whether Freudian or Jungian, we like to sit in calming rooms and talk ad nauseam until we blurt something out that triggers a rise in our therapist’s eyebrow and a subsequent scribbling of the pen. This remains a great starting point. 

Alternative trauma-surfacing methods from the 60’s were practiced and headquartered at the Esalen Institute — engagingly chronicled in Tony Schwartz’s book, What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America — practices included things like holotropic breathwork, gestalt therapy, and psychedelic treatment (what Michael Pollan recently called trip treatments).  

From this milieu emerged a useful model for bringing under one roof the many practices of existential therapy: philosopher Ken Wilber’s spectrum of consciousness.  

From Wilber’s book: No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth

Wilber’s model conceives of various ‘therapies’, East and West, functioning like assembly line workers upon the whole human being. Each therapy, from its own fixed locale upon the shared line of development, contributes towards the final creation. 

He writes: 

“Western psychotherapies aim at ‘patching up’ the individual self while Eastern approaches aim at transcending the self.”

Getting into greater detail: 

“The avowed aim of most Western approaches is variously stated as strengthening the ego, integrating the self, correcting one’s self-image, building self-confidence…they offer…a lessening of the ‘normal neuroses’ that are part and parcel of being an ego.”

Now offering the Eastern therapeutic intention:

“…the central aim of most Eastern approaches is not to strengthen the ego but to completely and totally transcend it…to tap a level of consciousness that offers total freedom and complete release from the root cause of all suffering, that puts to rest our must puzzling questions about the nature of Reality, and that ends our restless and anxious searchings for an abode of peace.”

Whether or not we’re onboard with ego transcendence, what’s significant is the partnership between Eastern and Western practices. To work on one end of the spectrum while neglecting another yields imbalance. Meditative practices that poke, prod, and loosen the ego’s boundaries are enriched by that ego being healthy. 

In the same spirit that Buddha only renounced wealth and comfort after being born into it, we may need healthy egos in order to relieve their chokehold upon consciousness. Or, if ego transcendence is a big hoax, we will have cultivated healthy egos all for nothing. 

Further, this intimacy between consciousness and life may imply that particular states of consciousness are preferable to others. If the contemplative wager isn’t to your taste, you can provide an alternative response to Thomas Metzinger’s question: What’s a ‘good’ state of consciousness? The ambiguity of the question itself impels further research into the many rooms of conscious experience. 

Randall Honold - looks like a labyrinth of consciousness, no?

Randall Honold - looks like a labyrinth of consciousness, no?

The point is to establish a developmental direction for the enterprise of philosophy to be useful. Otherwise, if the merit of conscious states is left an entirely personal matter with no generalized structures, and all states are equally ‘good’ if the individual so decides, we descend into a postmodern abyss where nothing matters and progress doesn’t exist. 

Philosophy has perennially sought such an objective rubric for morality, conduct, or life at large. Too often, such rubrics are based upon deductive reasoning — the disembodied intellect — rather than robust familiarity with conscious states. 

My faith is that progress lies, dormant under nihilism’s shroud, in exposure to the varieties of conscious experience. Wilber’s model establishes a useful directionality for the development of consciousness, and thus the progress of philosophy. 

Inverting Descartes’ Meditation

But models, if taken too seriously, can be as misleading as they are useful. The wild expanse of existence philosophy beholds cannot be articulated by any single conceptual system. Maps never disclose the full geography they represent. Philosophy’s essence is nebulous and wavy, like a quantum field. 

What, then, is the pulsating heart of philosophy? What endures through its many instantiations? What heartbeat animates its infinite forms? 

To ask these questions of philosophy is to ask them of existence itself. To answer them was Descartes’ aim in his, aptly titled, Meditations, often considered the spark that ignited modern philosophy. He sought to carve existence down to the bone, to only the most irrefutable, self-evident truth(s). He writes: 

“Thus having fully weighed every consideration, I must finally conclude that the statement ‘I am, I exist’ must be true whenever I state it or mentally consider it.”

This was the raw sentence later fashioned into, “I think, therefore I am” —  that notorious nub of existence. But it’s become popular among meditation practitioners to flip Descartes’ insight: I am, therefore I think. 

In meditation practice, thoughts are (gently) considered distractions from consciousness, like a chilled breeze brushing your face while reading, rather than the text itself. Meditation is an experiential process of lessening the distraction of awareness amidst the many gusts of wind, mental or otherwise. 

Philosophy, then, may be an inquiry into presence. It’s becoming trite but remains true: we live only here, in the present, nowhere else. The past is made up of ghost towns no longer inhabited by awareness. Paul Zweig calls it “…that bundle of vacated rooms and amazing basements known as memory.” And the future will never exist as such.

If philosophy explores consciousness in pursuit of enriching our lives — that is, enriching our experience of the present rather than the mythology we tell of our lives — shouldn’t we prioritize investigating what consciousness is like when present? When not beckoned by thoughts into those vacant rooms of memory, or forecasting futures? Do the human anxieties that plague our minds dissipate when awareness rests in the present? 

To change the metaphor, philosophy calls each individual to embark upon a Descartes-esque mining expedition, down to the most unshakeable core of experience, a ground from which we can rebuild our lives, restructure (or destructure) consciousness, with as great a degree of mental autonomy as possible.

The Socratic Mineshaft

Philosophy is full of people barging in, accusing the entire discipline of missing its mark, and then presenting their own view of how philosophy ought to be. 

Of course, this is what I’m doing, being that guy. But genuine philosophy can be built upon nothing but one’s own experience, so this might not only be defensible, but imperative to good philosophy. Perhaps we should all be so bold. We can follow Descartes’ example and cast aside everything of which we cannot be sure, tumbling down the Socratic mineshaft to the realization that we don’t know a damn thing. 

What’s left? In the dark cavern at base of experience’s mine, I stand up, brush myself off, and find that when doubt dispels all else, consciousness remains. The omnipresence of consciousness becomes the heartbeat to any further philosophy I construct; the scaffolding upon which I begin my ascent from the cavern of unknowing. 

How might this foundation in the primacy of consciousness inform philosophy, and our lives, at large? We can experience, for ourselves, the many unknown rooms in the labyrinth of consciousness. Through various meditative practices, psychedelics, flow-states, virtual reality applications, even electrical stimulations like the God Helmet, it’s possible to confront ourselves with the long corridors, the vast potentialities of consciousness of which we’re only dimly aware. 

(Re)New(ed) Scaffoldings of Philosophy

From these first-person encounters with various states of consciousness, we can begin to assemble cosmopolitan views on the qualities associated with various states of consciousness, and how to develop them. We can turn knowledge of Wilber’s spectrum from an abstraction into lived experience, and orient our lives — the awareness, thoughts, behaviors, and habits of which they’re made — towards states of consciousness we value. We can compare our own hierarchies with others’, as if superimposing multiple x-ray sheets, identifying overlaps.

But this isn’t possible without placing the exploration of consciousness back in the individual, cultural, and philosophic center. To start, this might take many forms: 

  • Meditation and other attention-based practices can be taught during the brain’s formative years in early education programs, embedding valuable skills into the neurological core of future generations.

  • The ludicrous classification of psychedelics with drugs like heroin can be lifted to reanimate the professional research begun in the 40’s, while also liberating personal explorations with these tools from the paranoia of illegality (not to mention their astounding therapeutic potential), with thoughtful guidance, information, and regulations.

  • The progress of economics can return to providing widespread existential value by moving towards universal basic income, alleviating survival anxiety and releasing workers from inescapable cycles of incessant toiling merely for long, exhausting lives. The exploration of consciousness should not remain a luxury for the affluent.

As Sam Harris argues in Waking Up, perhaps the most fundamental right we can uphold as a society is each individual’s ability to peacefully steward their own consciousness. 

People have always complained, philosophers especially, about the various climates of their time; political, social, cultural. But underlying every age’s complaint, every philosophy, is that disoriented ‘I’, a subjectivity inexplicably crystallized into the sensation of being separate from the world it faces.  

Philosophy inarguably has social, intersubjective components, and can be either obstructed or facilitated by particular norms and policies. But it remains, above all else, an individual affair. Each life, at its core, is a timeless moment. Each newly-minted self faces the voyage, in Camus’ words, “…to examine, to enlarge, and to enrich the ephemeral island on which they have just landed.”

Enriching these islands of consciousness to which we awake, startled, is philosophy’s task. We must allow ourselves, individually and politically, to set sail for the unknown waters of consciousness with diligence and gusto. Our lives may depend on it.