While we often talk about consciousness, it can be difficult to define. Consciousness refers to your awareness of your thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations and perception about the environment. Your consciousness is your awareness of yourself and the world around you. This awareness is created by you and unique to you. And it is this awareness that enables you to survive or thrive in this world.
However, you will know from experience that your conscious awareness is constantly changing. At this moment you may be focused on reading this blog. Your consciousness may then shift to the sudden sound outside. Next, you may notice how tight your buttock muscles are, or maybe you start thinking about your next meal.
This ever-changing stream of thoughts moves from moment to moment, but to you it all appears effortless. In fact, we move through multiple states of consciousness throughout our lives.
Examples of these different states of consciousness are wakefulness, sleep, dreams, meditation, hypnosis, anaesthesia, stupor from alcohol or hallucinations from psychoactive drugs.
We all have experienced multiple states of consciousness. And from this experience we know how our state of consciousness affects our ability to function in the world.
But can we increase our level of consciousness? To answer that we have to understand the history of scientific research in this area.
History of Western Consciousness Research
For thousands of years, the study of human consciousness was largely the work of philosophers. In the 16thcentury, the French philosopher Rene Descartes introduced the concept of mind-body dualism or the idea that while the mind and body are separate, they do interact.
Once psychology was established as a discipline separate from philosophy and biology, the study of the conscious experience became one of the first topics studied by early psychologists.
These early psychologists used a process known as introspection to analyse and report conscious sensations, thoughts, and experiences. Trained observers would carefully inspect the contents of their own minds. Obviously, this was a very subjective process, but it helped inspire further research on the scientific study of consciousness.
Streams of Consciousness
In the early 1900’s American psychologist William James compared consciousness to a stream. He said that consciousness appeared unbroken and continuous despite constant shifts and changes. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud focused on understanding the importance of the unconscious and conscious mind.
Then in the middle of the twentieth century, the focus of the research in western psychology shifted to purely observable behaviours.
But from the 1950’s as the West opened up to the East, various eastern practitioners of Yoga and Meditation travelled to the west to share their experiences, practice and Eastern theories of consciousness. Hence consciousness research in the west has grown tremendously since then.
Consciousness Research in the East
But things were different in the east, specifically in India. Here consciousness was at the heart of research since at least 1000BC. Ancient Vedic Texts specifically the Upanishads, discussed consciousness in great detail. At the heart of the ancient Yogic practice was training the human body to enhance awareness, perception and consciousness. More about this later. For now, let us understand how modern neuroscientists and psychologists define consciousness.
Modern Definitions of Consciousness
A problem in the study of consciousness has always been the lack of a universally accepted definition. Descartes proposed the idea of cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”). This suggested that the very act of thinking demonstrates the reality of one’s existence and consciousness.
The Behaviourists of the early 20th century, changed this. They based consciousness only on observable behaviour.
Modern neuroscience and specifically research in interoception has helped us reimagine consciousness. We now define consciousness as an individual’s awareness of their own internal body states as well as their awareness of events going on around them. And one is able to shift between this inner awareness and the outer awareness. However, from a scientific perspective we are still only able to measure consciousness by whether you are able to describe your experience in words or actions.
The Yogic Definition of Consciousness
According to ancient Yoga texts specifically Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra, the contents of our consciousness—perceptions, thoughts, emotions, memories, fantasies, even dreams—have a material existence. This is in keeping with modern neuroscience. Furthermore, Patanjali says that these contents are in constant fluctuation. The word Patanjali uses in sutra 1.2 to describe this constant fluctuation is vritti.
And the Yoga texts say that while we can’t physically see these vrittis we can easily experience them.
Close your eyes and, for a minute, direct your awareness to any object in your room. This allows you to consciously move your awareness. However, most of us can only do this briefly because very quickly the next thought comes into mind that distracts us from this task. Hence our minds jump from thought to thought. This is often described as “monkey mind”.
And according to Yoga, due to this phenomenon we never realise the full capacity of our conscious awareness. Furthermore, due to these fluctuations, we store multiple half-truths or incorrect bits of information in memory. The more we engage in these fluctuations – vritti – the more we confuse our brains and minds leading to disharmony in life.
Yoga & Neuroscience Agree
This idea too is in keeping with the latest neuroscience research. Recent research suggests that the brain is a prediction machine. So, when information comes in via our senses, our brain matches it with previous memories to predict what we are seeing. Hence, we never see things as they are, we see them based on information already stored in memories – even if these memories are incorrect. Hence it is said that for most conscious experience is actually hallucination. The video below explains this process.
According to Yoga science, the only way to overcome this is by slowing down these thoughts and learn to clear the mind. Therefore Yoga teaches us how to use breath to slow thoughts down, how to focus awareness on areas within or external to the body to improve perception, how to correct misalignment, how to relax correctly, how to clear the mind and how to use all of these techniques to create a more universal consciousness.