Healing the Spirit – The Nature of Consciousness

A Post from Dr. Rollow

In our encounters with patients at Integrative Health Practices, we seek to understand the contributions of spirit, mind, and body.  For most patients, the body is a significant focus of our support for the healing process, through diagnostic testing and a plan based on diet, nutrients, herbs, medications, and physical techniques.  For some, the mind is also an important part of healing, which we support through psychotherapy, breathwork, and reiki.

Sometimes patients come to us for reasons that are not clear to them, and as we explore what they are seeking, questions about life’s meaning surface.  Others come in with such questions, or have developed skepticism about the value of addressing them.  Working with patients on such questions can be an important part of our practice.

For me, the search for meaning has been a lifelong endeavor.  During the holiday break, I had the opportunity to read Rupert Spira’s “The Nature of Consciousness.” I believe that this is an important book that substantially reflects my understanding of what it means to be human, although I also think it falls short in some significant ways. I offer my thoughts on it for your consideration and welcome dialogue on them.

Spira begins, as is appropriate, with the epistemiological issue:  how do we know what we know.  His answer, which I agree with, is that our knowing must be based on our direct experience.  He then asks what answer our experience gives us to the question “Who am I?”

Spira says that the answer that increasingly predominates in Western thinking is that the universe is made of matter and that our consciousness develops as a consequence of matter.  Specifically, we have a material body and brain that is the source of our thoughts and feelings.  When our brain is injured, our capacity for thinking and feeling may be affected, and in this view, when we die our consciousness ends.  Alongside of this, some religions then posit beliefs about whether we continue to exist in some form after death, either in a different realm or in a return to life in a new identity.

How do we know that the universe is made of matter?  Spira says that because we have perceptions of objects in the world that are validated by others who experience them similarly, we believe that the universe exists objectively, and that our subjective experience derives from it.  He agrees that we have such experience, but disagrees with the conceptualization of it into objective and subjective experience in which the former is primary.  He instead argues that it is our experience that is primary, and that our experience consists of two elements:  the perception of objects/persons (and thoughts, feelings, etc. that go with them), and the experience that underlies and is distinguishable from such perception.

He calls this second element of our experience awareness or consciousness.  He says that we are able to experience this element in its purest form (disentangled from perceptions/thoughts/feelings related to objects/persons) in meditation, and also in deep (dreamless) sleep.  We also experience it as part of our non-meditative waking experience comingled with our experience of objects.  For Spira, awareness/consciousness is ontologically primary:  it is an experience that we have that that represents the “I” that experiences the objects/persons, and that persists when we distance ourselves from them.

Spira then describes our experience of such consciousness as timeless, not spatially-located, and not specific to our individual identities.  By contrast, our experience of objects/persons in the world is time-, space-, and identity- specific.  In his view, consciousness adopts this way of experiencing the world for us as humans.  To elaborate on this, he uses the metaphors of God dreaming the worldly experience that we have, or of light being refracted by a prism, or of a screen showing a video.  Further, he contrasts our usual experience of the world with our experience in dream states, when we often lose some of the constraints of time, space, and individual identity, and when our experience may be based on archetypes (as proposed by Carl Jung and others) – basic structures that are intermediate between underlying consciousness and worldly experience.

This is the essence of Spira’s epistemiological and ontological discussion.  It is consistent with my experience, and I believe is more clearly expressed than much of what I have read elsewhere, although as he acknowledges, and as Deepak Chopra writes in the Foreword to the book, it is also consistent with Vedantic and Tantric conceptualizations.

What are the implications of it for how we live and how we heal?  Spira points out that the experience of consciousness in the meditative state is peaceful and happy, and argues that this experience has the capability of enabling us to heal our depression and anxiety.  In my view, although he does not say so specifically, this is consistent with both forms of what is often taught in meditation – an underlying or pure state of connection with eternal and unbounded consciousness, and a mindfulness that distinguishes between the “I” that experiences thoughts and emotions and the thoughts and emotions themselves.  Both aspects of meditation have healing potential.  Spira says that the more that we connect with such consciousness the more that it becomes a part of our day-to-day experience of the world, and brings peace and happiness to such experience.  I think this is correct.

Spira then takes a further step.  As do many proponents of similar traditions, he argues that we suffer insofar as we conceive of ourselves as living in a material world in which we are separated from objects and persons.  He says that we strive for connection with objects and persons, and that when we achieve such connections we experience gratification that is temporary, and is followed by more striving for connection.  He says that our striving for happiness in the world is a reflection of our desire for experience of our true consciousness.  For example, he describes a walk that he took through a city in which he passes teenagers bungee-jumping, a tavern, a head shop, and a red-light district and notes that all of these activities offer a temporary escape from self.  He advocates for instead focusing on our essential nature as consciousness and our use of this to experience beauty in our connection with objects and love in our connection with persons.

In my view, this is fine as far as it goes, but is pretty limited in providing a guide to how to live in the world.  I agree with bringing the experience of our underlying consciousness to bear on our day-to-day experience.  But there is danger, I think, in reducing our experiences to reflections of our desire for spiritual connection.  We experience much in our lives that is colorful and multifaceted – humor, sadness, excitement, achievement – and that are not adequately understood as reflections of our spiritual impulses.  Using one of Spira’s metaphors, if God dreams our experience, s/he must find such experience to have value beyond the spiritual consciousness that underlies it.  Although I agree that we should not lose our connection to that consciousness in living in the world, much of what we experience in life is based on our humanity, not just our divinity.

From the perspective of healing, Spira’s contribution to our understanding of who we are is powerful and important.  It opens a door to a path that is capable of contributing much to our healing.  Beyond that door, however, lies a complicated and challenging space that we navigate using our base of consciousness and our experience in a world that has been given to us.