The Weirdness Of Nonduality #3: Could Consciousness Be Eternal?
A series of dialogues, arguments, expositions, and stories seeking to reveal the utter weirdness, as well as the possible truth, of nonduality. This is the third piece in this series.
Through meditation, how can one test whether time is ultimately real?
There are many ways of speaking about the path to enlightenment. In a recent satsang (questions with the teacher), Advaita Vedanta teacher Francis Lucille suggests that
— you can begin by investigating whether consciousness is numerically identical with the body;
— next, you can see whether consciousness depends upon, and is limited by, the body-mind;
— finally, you can investigate whether consciousness is, in fact, unlimited and therefore universal.
I don’t think virtually anyone believes that consciousness is numerically identical with the body, though the modern materialist paradigm does insist that consciousness depends upon, and therefore suffers the limitations of, the body-mind.
Therefore, I can begin with step 2: does consciousness depend upon the body-mind?
But then it soon becomes clear that the body is an image of the mind. That is, the mind creates a certain “picture” or “map” of the body. In which case, we can actually start our investigation with the mind.
Central Question Reformulated
Are the limits of the mind numerically identical with the presumed limits of consciousness?
Limits of the Mind
Both Immanuel Kant and The Upanishads agree on one point: namely, that the mind is structured according to the categories of space, time, and causality. That is, without the categories of space, time, and causality, could there be anything we call mind? It seems not. Today I wish to investigate only time.
Therefore, I’ll be looking at whether time, being a limitation of the mind, is also and at once a limitation of consciousness. In other words, we know that the category of time enables the mind to operate as mind. Is the same category likewise necessary for consciousness to be?
It turns out that we can, so to speak, test this in our own experience. Let’s examine the relationship between thought and time.
Consider the example of counting to 10. The mind counts “1,” “2,” “3,” …, “8,” “9,” “10.”
How does the mind know that when it counts “2,” 2 is present,1 is past, and 3 is in the future?
Answer: When the mind counts “2,” it hears 2 internally, as it were. That is one thought: hearing “2” internally. Another thought is the memory of 1. A third thought is the anticipation of 3, based, actually, on past thoughts — specifically, on past memories of 3 coming after 2, 4 after 3, and so on.
Simply put, then, the mind’s comprehension of time is dependent on its actually using thought as a measuring device. (More accurately put, the mind just is the activity of thinking in different modes.) It could be said, then, that time and thought are mutually dependent on one another. Without time, no thought. Without thought, no time.
We’re now in a position to test whether the limits of the mind are numerically identical with the presumed limits of consciousness.
“Neti neti” refers to a path of negation or removal. What is actually the case when we take away X, Y, and/or Z?
Suppose that I’m in seated meditation. Then I can ask myself, “When I take away all thought, IS there consciousness?” That is, “If I take away that upon which time depends (namely, all thought), then IS there experience?”
The answer is: yes! There is consciousness. Consciousness is. There is not nothing, and what is is not some thing. The simplest way of putting this in language would be to say: Isness.
Well, the implication of this experiment could be huge.
This simple experiment, conducted in the laboratory, as it were, of meditation, suggests a profound truth: that the mind is discontinuous while consciousness is at least potentially continuous; that the destiny of the mind may not be identical with the nature of consciousness. In other words, the possibility has emerged that consciousness, not limited by time as the mind clearly is, may be eternal. What the mind cannot fathom consciousness may actually be.
But why say that consciousness may be eternal? Because consciousness may be outside of time or, what is the same thing, not subject to time. It would be incorrect to say that consciousness, should what has been experienced here turn out to be true upon further, repeated investigations, is “always” or “everlasting,” for these imply that consciousness is in time but yet that it is indefinitely long. Were the latter to be so, the duration of consciousness would be like an ellipsis.
But what if consciousness has, because it can have, no duration? The possibility has emerged that consciousness is the eternal now, a now that is not a point on a temporally understood line but rather a now that is and that cannot not be.