“Is it fair to say that perception is consciousness? If the I is just the I reaction to stimulus then without perception there is no I.”
This is one of those questions people in my line of work often get. We try our best to answer them. But sometimes the answer is just as confusing as the question. Here goes anyway.
Perception is a word. Consciousness is a word.
Let’s take consciousness first, since it’s the word religious and philosophical people seem to like best. The word “consciousness” is like any other word. It takes one aspect of reality away from the rest and tries to consider it by itself, like the word “carrot” or the word “freedom.”
This works in lots of practical applications. Take, for example, an exchange between a surgeon and an anesthesiologist.
Has the patient lost consciousness?
Then I will begin the first incision.
So we can take our idea of consciousness, apply it to real things in the real world, and use that idea to do actual practical things. No problem there.
The problems happen when we start to believe that because we have an idea called consciousness there is an actual thing out there in the world called consciousness. In the case of the surgeon, she is using the word consciousness to describe a particular state of her patient. But in the case of many theologians and philosophers, consciousness is considered to be some kind of entity.
So they ask questions about this entity. Does consciousness survive the death of the body? That’s the big one. There are loads of answers, but most of them suck.
Buddha answered questions like this by pointing out that the questions themselves don’t really make as much sense as we imagine they do. You can’t come up with any coherent answer to a question like this because the question itself is not coherent.
If you ask whether perception is the same as consciousness, you’re also asking a question that doesn’t make sense. We generally imagine that there is a perceiver and the thing that is perceived. This makes sense when we’re reaching for a donut. There’s me over here on this side of the table and I perceive the donut on the other side. I reach forward and soon I become one with the donut, at which point the distinction between what is me and what is donut becomes meaningless.
But when it comes to something like consciousness as a thing in and of itself, the idea of perceiver and perceived breaks down. We generally conceive of ourselves as perceiving consciousness or as perceiving perception. We say, “I think,” “I see,” “I hear” as if there is “I” and there is “seeing.” Then “I” is sort of a blank nothing that can see and hear and think and do other stuff. Which is weird.
You can try to twist your brains around this for as long as you want. It will never make any sense because it didn’t start off making any sense in the first place.
You experience something and label it as “me” or as “self.” Yet how can you say that you experience self? That’s absurd.
The point is that any linguistic convention you use to describe any aspect of reality can only get you so far. This even applies to things like mathematics, which certain people still cling to as being a purely objective way of describing things. I grant you that mathematics is a far more objective way of describing reality than conventional language. But it’s still a language and as such is formulated pretty much the same way as other languages.
This is why we try our best to get past our own thought bubbles by seeing them for what they are rather than trying to explain them to ourselves. There’s a really nice video making the rounds of the Interwebs lately all about the early days of Tassajara, San Francisco Zen Center’s monastic community in Northern California. If you ignore all the spaced out hippies talking like they’ve just drunk a liter of Flavor-Aid at the Cultie Cook-out and skip ahead to about 5:43 in the video, Shunryu Suzuki (author of Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind) is sitting outside being interviewed while flocks of blue jays chirp and twitter in the background.
He says, “If we try to listen to something wonderful it means to ignore the bird which we are listening (to) now. When you think Buddha said something wonderful and I must find out what he meant, then your mind is directed to Buddha’s words so you don’t hear the birds. So always we sacrifice various actual realities because we stick to something. And we stick to something which looks like (it’s) very good, but that is not so good. If we have this kind of attitude when we listen to words, or teachings even, we will lose our life. And maybe our whole life will be sacrificed because of some special teachings. So our way is rather to enjoy our life right now without sacrificing. This is a kind of desire which human beings have. To some extent (the) desires we have (are) good but if we are enslaved by desire we lose (our) whole being.”
I don’t mind answering questions like this one about consciousness and perception. In fact, I enjoy it. But the answer is always the same. If you get caught up in the loop-de-loops your brain makes, you can get stuck there. You end up in a kind of cul-de-sac of thought from which there seems to be no escape.
But actually, there is an escape. The escape is right there in front of you. The answer is as obvious as it can possibly be. So sit down, shut up and look at it.
If you’re looking for a place to sit down and shut up, consider helping me and my friends in Los Angeles make a place where you can come and do that with us! Contribute to our fundraiser to make the Angel City Zen Center come alive! Every little bit helps a lot! Click here to learn more!
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October 26-27 Cincinnati, Ohio Concert:Nova
October 30, 2015Canton, Ohio ZERO DEFEX at Buzz Bin
November 6-8, 2015 Mt. Baldy, CA 3-DAY RETREAT
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
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