The groundwork for being a thinking person starts with thinking about thinking. Being a conscious person is both an awe-inspiring concept and quite mundane. It is mundane because it’s all we know, so we experience it every day as if it were as uneventful as a bus schedule. Another reason it is mundane is because we are stuck in it. It is a cage, a viewpoint, a state we can not step out of while still being conscious enough to consider it. So if the definition of mundane is “constant sameness” than consciousness is a perfect example — It just is what is.
To take an unbiased view of consciousness we would need to step away from it and take a look at it from arms length. That’s not easy to do. A bit like stepping out of a boat to see how it floats. There have been people who have described a near death experience, an LSD trip or a deep meditation exercise as being close to this. We can make a case for the latter, but are not suggesting either of the first two.
Awareness and understanding of one’s own thought process. Knowing about knowing.
Proponents of meditation tout the exercise as an effort to experience pure consciousness. Pure because the exercise attempts to eliminate all the distracting side effects of consciousness: thought, reasoning and external sensation. What is left is pure awareness — consciousness without the business and nosiness of the mind that polite the serene state of simply being. They call this “practicing” meditation, not “accomplishing” meditation because it is not an easy thing to do, as the mind wants to travel. It may seem strange that we can make a case for meditation and at the same time make a case for thought exercises, but it’s not. The mind needs rest just like the body, to prepare and recover. Sleep is not the mind at rest - it is unconscious but very active.
Meditation is the mind at rest — completely conscious, completely at rest.
Now let’s consider why consciousness is also awe inspiring. Consciousness is easily one of the most mysterious phenomena we face. Fun experiment: sit through a lecture on biology at any top university in the country, ask the professor where the conscious mind resides and measure their level of annoyance. Annoyance because you have intentionally asked a rhetorical question designed to point out the limitations of their academia. They don’t know. And they know, you know, that they don’t know. That’s annoying. In the same way that they can identify attributes of cells that are “living”, but can not isolate an element that is “life”, they can not isolate an element or location that is consciousness. They know it most likely resides in the brain, and even more specifically, the limbic system; but if you were able to pick the brain apart, region by region, synapse by synapse, molecule by molecule, you would not be able to isolate a thing called consciousness, or a specific space where consciousness lives. So if consciousness is you… you do not exist. Sorry about that.
Ah, but “I think, therefore, I am” you say? It’s true that you can survey the brain and not find a thing called consciousness. That is because consciousness is not a thing — it’s an event. It is a result of a great many moving parts, physical attributes, electrical firings and chemical reactions. Much like the relationship between a record player and music, so is the relationship between consciousness and the brain. The record player is a collection of plastic, gears, wires, resistors, vinyl disks with groves and ridges, paper diagrams, glue, magnets and a power cord. But it is not music, and if you tear it apart, you will not find the music. At best, you will find a series of ridges that resemble the pattern of the music and evidence of a pathway responsible for the contributing factors that lead up to the event that is music. There is no music, unless you plug it in, put the needle in the moving grove, and set it in motion. Your consciousness, like the music playing, is an event, not a thing.
Back to why this is awe inspiring, or at least really interesting to consider. We tend to think of ourselves as a thing, a person, a constant being from one day to the next. But these are the attributes of the record and player. Yet the record player is nothing but a collection of parts and materials, no different than the rocks and sand. It has no meaning. It’s nothing, unless it is produces the event that is music. The music is the higher form. The music is meaning. This leads us to a very important distinction with many implications, one we will come back to again and again. That is this:
You are not a thing, you are an event!
Further reading: Minimal Neuroanatomy for a Conscious Brain: Homing in on the Networks Constituting Consciousness
2009 Aug 20, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health
Resource: Waking Up With Sam Harris — Meditation Program