Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

James M. Corrigan

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James M. Corrigan

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Purchase James' book 'An Introduction to Awareness' from or

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The following is a chapter from the above book:

The fact that we can doubt the reality of our selves, and the clear and unequivocal problem that arises from that – if we can doubt our selves then who is it that is doubting – raises a concern that our view of reality is not yet free from unexamined, and perhaps unfounded, assumptions.  To say that the apodictic validity of our experiences is founded in awareness, while clearly valid, still apparently leaves intact the presumed form of the world – that of separation and physical existence.  The definitions of the last chapter could be seen as being merely a word game that is meant to highlight the necessity of our being aware of the world for it to exist, and the definition of what is real meant merely to necessitate the primacy of awareness over other mechanisms for knowledge.  Furthermore, our specification of consciousness, awareness, and being could be nothing more than a phenomenological analytic.  In order to validate our assertions about awareness, it is now necessary to turn our attention to our selves and see what is implied in the concept of subjectivity.  We have already seen how objectivity incorporates an implicit requirement for awareness that causes that concept to self-destruct once it is looked at clearly.  What about subjectivity?

Subjectivity and objectivity describe the two traditional views of our relationship with the world.  In the first way, all our perceptions and knowledge of the world are colored by our personal feelings, thoughts, and concerns, while in the second, they are free of those encumbrances.  At least, that is what is supposed to be the case.  Each of us naturally experiences the world in a way that we call subjective, with our perceptions being continuously colored, or altered, by our emotions as well as our thoughts and desires.  Problems with this condition arise in situations that demand detachment from these purely personal states.  In such cases we find that our normal way of experiencing and relating to the world undermines our ability to accomplish particular goals.  For instance, where a judgment of fact is to occur in a hearing of a complaint between two parties, it is generally held to be desirable that those doing the judging will act dispassionately and fairly. The possibility of the judges being guided by their subjective feelings, desires, or concerns, calls into question the fairness of the process.  Science faces a different, although related, problem.  If Science is to have a valid epistemological foundation then it must have a consistent field of phenomena free of subjective coloration, as well as a field of phenomena that is common to everyone.  The former problem has to do with how we experience and interpret phenomena, while the latter has to do with the existence of the phenomena and their origins.  The solution to both of these problems is generally held to be found in objectivity. 

Is objectivity something that actually exists?  Or is it a mental construction that we use to balance the “equations” of our thinking by allowing us to insert an adjusting factor that seems to minimize the untoward results that our subjective natures would otherwise introduce into both of the main problem areas discussed above?  In the case of personal interpretations of experiences objectivity is not a state; it is only a goal.  We attempt to be objective and we more or less are, each according to our ability to 'step-back' from our purely personal reactions to the phenomenal world.  In relation to a shared field of phenomena, objectivity is a premise that is necessary to allow Science to break out of the solipsistic world of the purely subjective; but one whose validity is, we have argued, faulty.  The cause of both of these problems lies at the heart of what we label as our subjective natures.

When we analyze subjectivity in light of what we have discovered about the structure of consciousness, we can see that the assumption that consciousness is just another attribute of our selves, and therefore what we experience is always purely personal in nature, should be looked at more closely because it is now clear from our previous discussion that our selves are phenomenal and ‘out there’ in the world just as any other phenomena is, when taken from the perspective of awareness as it animadverts upon what we refer to as our selves.

Consciousness has been presented as arising from the animadversion of Awareness.  Awareness, the reality, is not something that we directly perceive or can be conscious of, as it does not have any attributes.  Therefore, as an ineffable nonexistent, it is incorrect to attempt to objectify it and impose ownership upon it.  Since Awareness has no quality or characteristic upon which I can found a property claim, nor which I can use to bring Awareness directly into the world as a distinct thing, the only way that Awareness can be known is as an abstract intuitive intellectual idea.  But that is not the same thing as being conscious of Awareness directly.  When we attempt to objectify Awareness, we advert 'our' attention, which is the animadversion of Awareness, onto an abstract thought about awareness.  Thus we are not grasping Awareness, but only an intellectual shadow or adumbrated idea of it. But once we do so, our thoughts about consciousness revolve around this structure consisting of this idea of awareness and the content of the consciousness, i.e. the phenomena, and we find that it all fits neatly here, in our ‘selves’.  It is necessary to remember that this idea of awareness is just an intellectual construction and that the real Awareness, which is animadverting our conscious experience – even at this very moment – cannot be so neatly contained. 

When one reflects upon what it is that arises in consciousness as the content of that consciousness when we think about awareness, it should be doubly clear that it is not Awareness itself that we are conscious of, but only an intuitive idea.  In the first instance because we are thinking about it.  We are not in a ‘natural’ mode of experiencing consciousness ‘first-hand’, but rather, we are in a state of reflection.  That should be enough to convince us that we do not have our ‘hands’ around the ‘real thing’.  Second, because we can never get past the feeling of being aware when we focus our attention upon this idea of awareness.  But ‘feeling’ is not awareness itself, rather it is what Awareness provides to conscious experience (as opposed to just registrations of sensory data such as would occur in an artificial ‘intelligence’).  Can we then lay claim to this feeling other than by force of habit?  Is it some thing that we can locate and place a deed of ownership upon?  We need to be extremely careful here as this is the crucial point upon which our understanding of reality is based.  It is here, at this crucial juncture that our understanding becomes either “true knowledge” or merely “opinion”.  If we can see that we have no evidence for attaching a claim of ownership on awareness we can overcome the forceful opinion that obfuscates our true understanding of the apodictic validity of our experiences.

We assume that since we are conscious of our selves that we are therefore "conscious beings".  When I say that I am a conscious being, I mean that I am first and foremost conscious of me – my attributes, my thoughts, my feelings and my actions.  Awareness, however, except as an intuitive thought about it, is not one of the things that I can be conscious of.  I feel the consciousness of various phenomena, but what would it mean to feel the awareness of that consciousness?  If awareness and the feelings that are imparted upon our conscious experiences are ours, here in this body, then to feel the awareness of that consciousness means that we would have to be ‘outside’ of our own selves.  We would have to be a presence looking upon our ‘selves’ in a most intimate way to be sure, but as an onlooker nonetheless.  Does this logical necessity solve our problem for us?  Does it prove that the awareness is ‘contained’ within us?  Or have we only arrived at that special state that we referred to in the second chapter of this essay as “contemplative awareness”?  Has our Awareness been adverted upon itself?  Or has it instead ‘taken a step backward’ so that our normal state of being immersed in our experience of the world has now ‘flipped’ so that our experiential moment is now contained ‘within’ Awareness?

The realization that these questions lead to raises some disturbing questions:  Have I jumped to a conclusion about the consciousness of my self being mine?  Which of its attributes make it mine?  What characteristics does it have that I can recognize as clearly being a part of me?  Is it because I am conscious of myself; that I have access to my 'inner' world and no one has access to that but me?  Yet am I only conscious of myself?  Am I not also conscious of a world that is filled with other individuals?  Do those individuals experience the exact same world as I do?  We are in the habit of assuming that we all experience the same world, but this is patently false as we each have individuated perspectives upon the world, or what does subjectivity refer to?  Is the fact that only I am conscious of my ‘inner’ world the result of an individuated perspective on the world, or is it the result of an individuated awareness?  

The first alternative fits the phenomena well, if we can give up our hegemonic demand for ownership of the phenomena of consciousness for the moment, while the second creates a number of difficulties.  Clearly an individuated perspective means that the thoughts that I am conscious of will be ‘mine’.  If, instead of my own individuated perspective, I shared yours, then obviously the thoughts that ‘I’ would be conscious of would be ‘ours’ and not ‘mine’.  But if Awareness is individuated, rather than the perspective from which it animadverts, could I ever be conscious of anything from your perspective?  I am conscious of your mood when I see you.  In order to explain how I am conscious of your mood, since, given a Physicalist view of reality, we can only be conscious of our own selves and our subjective experience of the world, it is necessary to introduce the idea of “subliminal perceptions” of “signals” that I somehow “pick-up”.  You and I both view something, but from our individual perspectives and with our presumed individuated awareness, so how is that we can understand what we each experienced?  In order to explain this we introduce the idea of an “imagination” that allows us to fantasize about what the other experienced, and we place this imagination within the limits of an “objective reality of matter”.  We then either leave it to metaphysicians to explain, and poets to comment upon, why it is that this “fantasy” so closely fits the other’s experience, or we introduce an “Unconscious mind” filled with “race memories”; or as a last resort, we put it all down to “predispositions” somehow encoded in our genetic material.  And what of those wondrous moments shared by lovers and close friends who know each other’s feelings?  Are they merely an illusion also or are they the result of those subliminal “signals” that we “pick-up” again?  Or are they the result of random historical occurrences that have resulted in the ‘programming’ of such sublimity, as that which Shakespeare and all the other poets of human history found themselves in awe of? Are my intuitions about the world and the other beings in it also illusory?  And how is it that I can empathize with others? Is it because I only “imagine” how they feel?  The more we analyze our conscious experiences, the more it becomes apparent that the assumption that Awareness is individuated requires us to greatly multiply the number of entities at work in our conscious experiences, quietly violating our scientific preference for parsimony, such as that expressed by Occam’s Razor.

To say that we are only conscious of ourselves and we are the only ones who can access our 'inner' world is to place ourselves on a very slippery slope that leads to solipsism, even if we deny solipsism itself by introducing “objectivity”.  To say that Awareness is individually contained and that no one but ourselves can pierce into the inner world of our being is misanthropic, as it results in most, if not all, of our most fulfilling experiences as humans being segregated into a wasteland of fantasy and appearances.

Consciousness is not a personal attribute.  It does not belong to someone; rather it is of someone or of something.  Whenever there is consciousness of an experience, we habitually impose ownership upon it due to the animadversion toward that which is experienced from this perspective here while focusing on the content of that consciousness.  That is, we equate the venue with the content.  This "turning to" or adverting of the attention of Awareness is personalized by our ratiocinative thought so that the circumlocutory, but exact, description of the experience as a “consciousness of something arising from the animadverting of Awareness upon it from this viewpoint” is figuratively expressed as “my consciousness of something"; where the "my" in that familiar form of expression is being used as shorthand for the point of view, and everything local to it.  As in the case with most figurative speaking, we err when we then make the leap from using a personalized “consciousness of” expression because of its simplicity in speech and thought, to imputing that the consciousness of the experience must therefore be a component of our selves since it is 'my' consciousness of something.  We also err when we forget that a “consciousness of” something arises from a particular point of view and instead try to hold that the consciousness can be nonspecific or even absent, as we do when we introduce “objectivity”.  In the first error we are seduced by a reflection and forget that the mirror is not what it reflects.  In the second, we believe there can be a reflection without a mirror!

It is in our attempt to correct the deficiencies that we see arising from the first problem of subjectivity – of being immersed within ‘ourselves’ – that leads to the inadvertent introduction of the second mistake inherent in the objective point of view.  Not remaining cognizant of the fact that there is always a reference point, or point of view, inherent in any consciousness, we attempt to be “objective”, and deal with things ‘themselves’ without the complications of subjectivity.  We make believe that the phenomena that we experience are not reflections at all, but are real things, permanently disconnecting Awareness from what it is conscious of, as if the latter can stand alone ‘outside’ of our awareness of it.  It then becomes evident to us, as we follow the implications of this line of thought, that it is consciousness that is contingent upon 'objective reality’ and not the reverse, since consciousness is just an empty 'container' into which are put experiences of 'real' things.  We then scramble to explain how it is that consciousness arises, either as a function of the operation of distinct brain components in some kind of feedback loop, or as a phenomenon that supervenes upon it, or as a feature of the physical construction or configuration of the brain itself.  That, or we fall into metaphysical ruminations in which we attempt to correct this difficulty in seeing how it can be that consciousness can arise out of matter by seeking a metaphysical solution that is compliant with our having marginalized consciousness while still being forced to deal with Awareness and all that it imparts to experience.  Some even go so far as to throw up their hands and declare that this is too hard a problem to solve with our human intellectual faculties.  

The Objective point of view causes this error because it entails a failure to realize that a view from nowhere in particular is still a view, if it postulates the existence of anything.  It attempts to forget this by making the “consciousness of something” contingent on the “thing itself”, minimizing or completely vacating the power of Awareness in deference to the presumed unassailable reality of "external" things.  Along with this we see the relevancy of feelings eviscerated.  The fundamental error to be found in this position is the belief that there is a place outside of Awareness.  Having marginalized consciousness and co-opted the content upon which Awareness animadverts, we necessarily find such a container as consciousness to be too small to hold the world.  As our faith in objectivity strengthens, our belief in an external, ever-present world becomes solidly set in our minds, and our "internal" experiences get more and more degraded until they are as nearly eviscerated of any validity as they can be without our becoming completely dysfunctional beings.  We turn our “insides" into a kind of Frankenstein construction of componentry, subject to all the deterministic rules that we deem to govern the rest of reality.  We treat our bodies’ symptoms allopathically with drugs.  We come to see ourselves as nothing more than data processing units, and find the goal of creating a conscious artificial intelligence to be coherent.  

The objective point of view is a laudable idea because it provides for a ‘shared nature’ of reality, such as a table that similarly exists for all beings in a room, that is so important to Science and which would be otherwise absent; and by the implications of the Physicalist view it is the only option that gives us the ability to have such absolute knowledge of the world.  Without objectivity we can have no Science, or so it is thought, because without a shared objective reality there is nothing to ground it upon.  But this view gives us this ability to have absolute knowledge of the world by eviscerating our ‘subjective’ experiences of relevancy.  Furthermore, this need for a ‘shared nature’ of reality only arises because of the first mistake that we make that gives rise to our opinions of the subjective point of view: that we think consciousness is an attribute of our individual selves.  Thus if consciousness is an individual attribute how is it that there is sure knowledge of a world 'outside' of us?  But if consciousness is not derived from individuated awareness, which by the very nature of Awareness that gives rise to it, it cannot be, as we are beginning to see, then the shared nature of reality that we seek arises because Awareness has only an ‘inside’.  It is without any ‘outside’. 

This alternative view of a reality of non-individuated Awareness with individuated perspectives corrects the errors inherent in the subjective point of view without either needing the fantasy of, or introducing the deficiencies of, an objective point of view.  As well, it reflects an understanding that a point of view always entails awareness.  There is no current name for this third way of viewing the world, so we will borrow a word from mathematics and set theory.  A Surjection or surjective function is known as an “upon function”, and is the word most congruent in intended sense to that for which we search.  It incorporates this sense of upon as directionality from outside of a set.  This sense can be extended metaphorically to the animadversion of Awareness upon that which it gives rise to: consciousness of.  Therefore I will refer to this third way of viewing the world as Surjectivity. 

The Surjective point of view maintains the distinction between a “consciousness of” and the intentional source of that consciousness. Thus, while there is a consciousness of my self, that consciousness is not an attribute of my self.  It is not self-consciousness, a reflexive act of ‘mine’, but consciousness of myself, a surjective act of Awareness.  While there is consciousness of my perceptions, that does not mean that the power of Awareness that gives rise to the consciousness of those perceptions somehow arises from any body or substance, including my own body; nor does it require the reality of any substances or bodies, as we will see later.  Yet Science will still be epistemologically well-grounded, as will be explained.  Surjectivity then is the stance of contemplative Awareness.

It is not an easy thing to shake off the habits that we have acquired.  Thus, when it is said that there is no need for substances or bodies, we view this statement from the viewpoint of Materialism and find that since this new view does not require substance, then it must demand ideas, or Idealism, as these are the only two traditional ontological positions.  But this is wrong, as will be shown.  Also, so ingrained is our belief that consciousness is always an attribute of someone, that to say that the consciousness of myself is not an attribute of my self immediately gives rise to the question: “Well then, whose consciousness is it?” and the idea of a unary consciousness necessarily arises.  The problem with this concept is again that we have trouble changing our way of perceiving and thinking about the world.  Thus if consciousness is not multiple, it must be singular.  There must be a shared, universal consciousness at work 'in' each of us.  This also will be shown to be defective.  These either-or possibilities are symptomatic of a failure to shake off the error inherent in the subjective point of view.  A “consciousness of” is simply that.  It is not “someone’s consciousness of”.  That is just figurative speech.  Nor is it  "One" consciousness, as we will see later.

Surjectivity means that it is possible to doubt one’s reality; that such an exercise is not empty of content simply because the statement itself is trivially false.  When we undertake this exercise we find that we are left with a presence that has no other attributes whatsoever.  In the absence of everything there is still this presence that is undeniable.  This then, finally, is the absolute ground upon which everything arises – our selves, the world, even time and space.  It is this presence that is the source of the apodictic validity of all experience.

Yet, it is possible to imagine that there is still a need for something other than this ground of Awareness.  What is it that is experienced after all? Intellectually, one sees a need for some type of substance behind the phenomena giving rise to that phenomena that Awareness gives rise to a conscious of.  Whereof this intellectuality?  Where do these ideas come from?  How do they arise?  Is the Intellect something apart from Awareness?  Is it perhaps something greater than Awareness?  Until we settle this matter, the form of the world is still open to debate.


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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012