The ‘consciousness-only’ paradigm states that the ultimate nature of everything is nothing other than consciousness itself. This means that consciousness cannot be ‘known’ in any conceptual way since it has no definable characteristics that can be seized upon – it has no essential features that can be matched with our mental categories in order to produce positive knowledge of it. However, despite its inherent ‘emptiness’ of anything that might logically correspond to our ways of thinking and conceptualising reality, consciousness can be said to have the property of being able to generate or project definable and knowable realities, which it can relate to as if they were not its own creation, which is to say, as if the said definite realities are themselves primary (i.e. independent) phenomena. This is the principle of reification.
Therefore, consciousness can play a game with itself whereby it creates completely effective illusions, which – when believed in – become pragmatically (or relatively) real. The property of being able to easily believe that such-and-such is true, or that some other thing is true, is a fundamental form of gullibility and in the absence of wisdom this gullibility is the main property of consciousness. The way this works is through the process of irreversible information loss: when I fall into the trap of believing that such-and-such a proposition is true, then what happens is that I immediately lose the possibility of seeing the world in any other way and so the information content of my world collapses or crashes. Information as a concept can be directed correlated with the amount of perspective that we have on things. Therefore, maximum information is when we have no restriction whatsoever on the number of ways in which we can see the world. This means that we are open to new ways of seeing things, we are open to ‘newness’.
Consciousness can therefore be ‘defined’ (in a manner of speaking) as a state of complete openness or freedom, or also as a state of pure unfettered perspective in which everything is shown as it is, i.e. empty of any static, fixed or limiting characteristics. Another way of explaining this is to say that consciousness is where we can see that there are an infinite number of ‘right’ ways in which to describe (or see) the world, which means of course that there is no one definite way to see the world. Instead of being a static or endlessly-repeating structure, therefore, the world is seen to be a movement, a ‘continuous unfolding of the new’.
When we believe that reality is capable of being exhaustively described (i.e. so that there is an exclusively correct way to understand or describe it) then the process of acquiring knowledge is basically an inexorable approach to a fixed position or standpoint. Once we actually reach this position, then there is no further motion – stasis is reached and nothing else ever happens. Nothing else needs to happen because we have ‘found the right spot’.
This is the type of change called optimization, which is where we keep on getting closer and closer to a known or knowable destination. Optimization is all about ‘progress’ but since the progress in question involves getting closer and closer to a fixed or static ideal, it is in reality the very antithesis of movement, the very antithesis of actually getting anywhere. In optimization, we are forever getting closer and closer to getting nowhere – we are getting better and better at maintaining a fixed position. We are getting better and better at ‘staying the same’ – whatever that means!
When we do not have this ‘closed’ approach to things, then instead of a process of progressively accumulating positive knowledge, there is a negative process whereby false knowledge is gradually stripped away, like the layers of skin in an onion. This is the so-called negative way, the via negativa. We are not approaching a fixed position which our mind holds up to us as being some kind of ‘golden ideal’, some kind of ‘ultimate achievement’, but rather we are gradually perceiving that all fixed positions are equally meaningless. We come to see that there is no such thing as ‘a fixed or known position’, in other words!
The fixed position which is supposed to be so marvellous, so meaningful (the static ideal which is supposed to represent so much) is in reality nothing more than a faithful reflection of the mind that has created it. So when we ‘idealize’ the fixed position, the goal, we are actually idealizing (or idolizing) the rational mind. The static mind – in a thoroughly narcissistic fashion – is idealizing itself. As Jiddu Krishnamurti says, the mind worships itself at the same time that it pretends to pay homage to some supposedly independent reality…
When we travel the via negativa, life shows itself to be a continuous journey into the unknown; there is no ‘worshipping of the static mind’ only an ever-deepening understanding of the inscrutability and mystery of both ourselves and the universe that we are part of. Change is the order of the day, rather than the restrictive regimentation of rationally-imposed stasis. In this unbounded (or unregulated) movement ourselves and the universe are ultimately revealed not as two separate or unconnected things, but as the very same mystery. There is not ‘consciousness plus its objects’, or ‘consciousness plus the world from which it arose’, but only consciousness.
Consciousness may be see therefore as infinite information, which is the same thing as radical freedom, i.e. the capacity to change in an unregulated way. This endless freedom contains all possibilities, no possibilities are excluded at all, and so even the possibility that ‘not everything is allowed’ is allowed. Thus, negative freedom is born, which is ‘the freedom that we have not to be free’. Negative freedom is the ‘freedom’ to follow a set of strictly defined rules: we are free to buy any colour car we want just so long as it is black; we are free to think and do whatever we want just so long as we think it and do it in the way that we have been instructed to.
This is also called ‘conditioned existence’ because everything we do is subject to conditions. Here we live under the law of negative freedom because everything we perceive and think and do is conditioned by our unexamined belief in our own fixed or finite identity – the identity that can never change, the identity that we never want to change. This fixed or finite self is who we have been instructed to believe we are by the rational mind. The finite self is a projection of the rational mind, an artifact of the rational mind. It is at root nothing more than a category of the rational mind.
On the one hand, the identification with the conditioned or static self offers us satisfaction – it allows us to feel the pleasure of possession, the experience of having ‘ownership’ of our experiences. On the other hand, the promise of personally owning something wonderful is never actually delivered: there is a worm in the golden apple, a hidden flaw or snag in the set-up: I get a tantalizing taste of the prize, only to lose it again. I gain therefore only in order to lose again. I win only to the extent that I will later on lose…
The pleasures the conditioned self obtains are transient, in other words, and are ultimately cancelled out by the suffering that it incurs as a result of its attachment to itself and its objects. And finally, it faces the inevitability of death, which for the finite self is always the ‘great fear’. In fact, everything this self attains in life is bound to be undone later on; this is because the finite or conditioned self does not actually exist. The insight into this essential ‘meaninglessness’ is something that the conditioned self runs away from whenever it can – it can never accept this painful truth, for if it did then it would have to let go of itself and its static idea of the world.
True freedom means no limits, no conditions, no boundaries, no edges. As the Buddhist saying has it, “there are no endings, only changes”. An end is a cut-off, a limit, a boundary – it is the hallmark of conditioned existence. If there are no boundaries then there are no beginnings and also no endings. Furthermore, if there are no boundaries then there are no separate entities, no ‘me’ and no ‘you’. The conditioned self is separate and subject to birth and death, but the unconditioned self is not separate and it is not subject to birth and death, since birth and death are concepts that only makes sense from the point of view of a finite mind-frame, from a limited and static way of understanding things.
Conditioned realities flick in and out of existence constantly like pictures on a TV set. The underlying consciousness which generates these pictures, however has no beginning and no end because it is subject to no conditions. It is outside of space and outside of time, it was not created and it cannot be destroyed since beginnings and endings exist and make sense only within the conditioned realm, the linear realm, the realm of time and space. The underlying consciousness is not part of any story that is being told – it isn’t part of an underlying story because it isn’t a defined or positively expressed reality. It’s what all definitions or descriptions come out of, just like ‘waves come out of the sea’. Waves don’t create the ocean and in the same way explanations and theories don’t create consciousness!
We are all the same always tempted to ask what this consciousness is all about, we want to ‘know what the story is’. We want to know what pure, ungrounded consciousness is like. We want to understand it. This is a fascinating question to us, but it is at the same time a futile question, because we only want to know ‘about’ consciousness from the safe position of our everyday understanding. If we genuinely wanted to know we would find out by being conscious, not by thinking about it. Instead of settling for second-hand gossip, we would go for direct personal experience.
Wanting to know what consciousness is like is like trying to imagine what it would be like to wake up when you are still asleep – you can dream about waking up, and you can dream about being awake, but when you dream of being awake you are still every bit as asleep as you are when you dream about anything else.
The rational mind always pretends to be interested in learning about mysterious phenomena (and the big, wide world in general) but what it is really interested in is enriching its own repertory of things to talk about. It is interested only in itself, in its own dominion, when it comes down to it. It is only interested in expanding its own private kingdom. The problem is that everyday ‘self’ is insincere, and doesn’t actually care about what it says it cares about. It doesn’t really want to do what it talks about wanting to do. For example, it doesn’t really want to know about reality!
For the ‘insincere finite self’, nothing real can ever happen, and if we persist in thinking (or hoping) that something can happen, that it really can get somewhere, that its cherished goals really do mean something, then we will be caught up in its folly and futility forever. We will simply continue to go around on the meaningless merry-go-round of conditioned life, which forever seems to be going somewhere, but never does. Inasmuch as we are subject to the rule of fear (which is the same thing as the rule of ‘negative freedom’) the option of being caught up in the meaningless merry-go-round of conditioned life seems ‘the better option’. We won’t admit that we are making the choice (because that would of course be giving the game away) but inasmuch as we are orientated towards ‘running away from our fear’, the path of self-deception (which is the path of ‘folly and futility’ seems infinitely preferable! This is of course going to be the case when we are in the business of running away from fear – that’s what fear does! Fear simplifies everything down because when we are afraid the only thing that matters is getting away from this fear, running away from it, hiding from it…
Fear over-simplifies everything. It oversimplifies reality. So what happens when we do oversimplify reality, by running away heedlessly from fear? What does ‘the oversimplified reality’ look like? What kind of a thing is that? These are rhetorical questions, of course. We don’t really need to ask them because the answer is all around us! When fear oversimplifies reality this entropic process turns ‘breadth into narrowness’; it turns ‘open-horizons into sealed-off compartments’. The Great Journey is turned into a cul-de-sac; the Great Adventure is turned into a dead-end that we refuse to see as a dead-end…