Descartes was the one who made a systematic effort to understand Consciousness. In the process, he established a legacy that was found useful to reduce the bossism of the Church and its diktat on scientific research of the day, but which is proving today to be a big impediment. The mindset developed under this hypothesis of the separation of mind and matter, to be dealt with by philosophy and science respectively, means many philosophers still resist the forays of science into issues related to the mind and Consciousness!
Descartes recognized his own existence from the fact that he was conscious and was able to think. Thus, the very foundation for his existence was ‘thinking’.
In Advaita, it is simply ‘I’. One alone, there is no second, (‘ekam eva advitiyam’, Chandogya Upanishad (6.2.1)). This ‘I’ is a shorthand for both Consciousness and Beingness. It is not two separate words ‘I’ and ‘am’. In other words, Consciousness and Beingness are only one; different expressions of the same ‘one and only’ thing. This Beingness-Consciousness, as one word, has nothing to do with thinking nor does it depend on thinking or any other activity for its existence. This Beingness-Consciousness does NOT think or do anything at all. It is immutable, eternal, beyond time-space.
Thinking happens only when this Beingness-Consciousness is ignored. As Peter Dziuban would put it, ignoring Being-Consciousness is in a way thinking. That means that we just forget being abiding in this Beingness-Consciousness.
Thus, thinking begins with the coming of ignorance; or thought is the first sign of ignoring. No harm is done by this thought. After the first thought occurs, however, another thought begins with a claim of ownership and doership – this is my thought and I am thinking.
Actually, if you carefully observe yourself, a thought occurs first. Then the claim: ‘I thought so’ happens. With that claim of ‘my thought’, action happens as per the thought and a claim of doership comes into being: I am the author of this action. Let us take a simple example. A thought comes: drink tea. I claim ownership and say, ‘I want to drink tea.’ Then making tea happens and I say, ‘I made the tea.’
Thoughts are never under our control. I can never pre-decide that at so-and-so time I shall get so-and-so thought. Nor can I ever be without a thought. Thoughts are as natural as breathing. In fact, these two are linked. Therefore, some persons control their thinking by control of the breath; however, any of these breath control exercises have no relevance to an understanding of Advaita.
Therefore, if we understand Advaita correctly, it is not about thought control. It is about the realization that at that moment there is nothing else than that very thought. At that moment, there is no other to realize anything. Remember ekameva advitiyam. So that very thought is Beingness-Consciousness at that moment. Or ‘I’ and thought are one.
There is another little twist here. We talked about thought. Thought is by the mind in the mind. There are also bodily sensations – visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile and gustatory – and perception of a world. Though we receive these signals through the different senses, it is the mind behind the senses that gives meaning to them. This meaning happens in the mind. In the absence of a meaning, they are just sensations. We feel that we detect these sensations in our brain. But you can never experience your own brain – I do not mean an image of a brain, or the name of it, or an idea of a brain – but the raw experience of your own brain. In other words, all sensations are detected somewhere in no specific space.
So what has actually happened are a bunch of sensations which are felt at no place and we interpret the sensations with a meaning, assign them a name and objectify them as separate entities existing in the world. Then we begin to claim some of these sensations as mine, and some others as not mine. A ‘me’ comes into being with the ensemble of sensations claimed as mine, and that subset of sensations serves as my attributes and define me with a ‘body’.
One of the attributes I identify for myself is my existence or ‘i am’. This ‘i’, which has come about by this process of claiming ownership to some of the sensations, is the ‘i’ with which we are familiar. This ‘i’ is not the same as the shorthand ‘I’ we had for Beingness-Consciousness with which we began our discussion. This is an apology for ‘I’, an abhasa, a fallacious entity. The fallacious entity is the one which thinks ‘i am and therefore, i think.’
It is the fallacious ‘i’, which sees the world separate from itself. It is its selective claim of ownership to some of the sensations-thoughts-perceptions, factually a unitary single experience out of which are created a world out there and a ‘me’ in here by fragmentation.
The moment this ownership claim is given up, all of what remains is the sum total experience without a claimant or ‘seer’. Thus Advaita is not about giving up thoughts/sensations/perceptions but it is about just dropping the claim of ownership, or vairagya.
Let us look at the whole thing in a different way. I know I am conscious. No external proof is required for this fact. I know I exist. This also is an uncontestable fact requiring no outside evidence. But we cannot really separate out ‘existence’ and ‘Consciousness’ and find two distinct animals. They are both one and the same only. It is the same thing for which we gave the shorthand name of ‘I’.
I normally think I am confined to and within the body and the world is out there distant from the body. But the unrealized fact is I perceive my body too just as I perceive the world out there. So body or the world are both perceptions and it is only the claim of ownership that has separated my body and the world. Without the claim of ownership, which is nothing but another thought arising, it is all one perception – no difference as body and world. Just at the very moment the perception of the world is there, we have the sensations of the body – the butt on the seat, hand on the keyboard – and we also have the thoughts in the mind. In other words, we are conscious of all these things at the same time. So the sum total experience of thoughts, sensations, and perceptions is really one single experience arising in an undifferentiated unitary Consciousness.
And how do I say that I am conscious? Because I have the experience of percepts – thoughts, sensations and perceptions. So the percepts in a way tell me that I am conscious. Putting it in a different way, I become aware of my being conscious only when a percept arises. Therefore, any percept is my consciousness only arising at that point of time assuming for itself a limited form and an ID with a distinct name.
Thus what I call the body, the world and consciousness are all One entity, Consciousness-Beingness.