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How Consciousness Evolves

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by Sangharakshita

... of art, the fine arts; in the context, again, of comparative religion, of the spiritual life and so on. In this way, in the course of just eight weeks, eight lectures, we covered an enormous amount of ground and we saw things, or tried to see them, in a very wide perspective indeed; and I know that some people who attended those lectures, especially attended the whole series, felt at times rather overwhelmed by the amount of material available, and by the colossal magnitude of the vistas disclosed.

This year, in this series of talks, we are going to follow what we may describe as an opposite procedure. We are going to study, this year, aspects of the Higher Evolution of the individual.

What does this mean? We are still concerned, of course, with the Higher Evolution, but we are concerned with it in a different way. We are going to study it not so much in general but in particular. We are going to study the spiritual development of the individual human being, and in particular we shall be concerning ourselves with some of the problems - sometimes, some of the very difficult problems - encountered in the course of that development by the individual. In other words, if last year we looked at the subject of the Higher Evolution through a telescope, to see it as big as possible, this year we are going to look at it through a microscope; and under the microscope we shall be putting, in effect, ourselves.

We are about to study the Higher Evolution of man; study the development of the individual man, man by himself, man alone, not man as member of the group, member of the herd, member of the crowd; the individual man, man by himself, standing alone. But the question arises: in what does that development consist? Even the question arises: what is man? Unless we have at least some clear idea of the nature of man, it will be impossible for us to understand in what it is that this Higher Evolution or development consists.

To put it as simply, not to say crudely, as possible in terms of popular thought and popular expression, a man consists of two well-known parts. There is his body, his physical body, and there is his mind or his consciousness. His body belongs to, or rather is a product of, is derived from, the Lower Evolution. He has inherited this physical body, so fearfully and wonderfully made, from a long series of animal ancestors, extending back into dim and very distant ages. His mind, too, belongs to the Lower Evolution. Some of you may be a bit surprised by this; you may have been expecting me to say, "But the mind belongs, of course, to the Higher Evolution." But not a bit of it. The mind of man belongs, too, to the Lower Evolution. Sometimes man is defined as a rational animal. This, I believe, is Aristotle's definition. But we now know that some, at least, of the higher animals are able to reason; so ordinary rational consciousness, man as a rational being, belongs still to the Lower Evolution. But potentially at least the mind of man belongs to the Higher Evolution. The human body has remained unchanged for hundreds of thousands of years. It seems to have reached, so far as we can tell, the pinnacle, the limit, of its development. But the mind, on the other hand, is capable of almost infinite development.

Man, therefore, we may say, is mind rather than body. If his future lies anywhere, it lies in his mind. And the Higher Evolution of man, we may therefore say, consists essentially in the continued development of his mind or his consciousness. This brings us - perhaps not too soon - to our principal subject for tonight, which is: 'How Consciousness Evolves'. That is to say, we come to the question of the successive stages of development through which consciousness passes in its upward ascent.

But first, there is another question that arises, which is: what is consciousness? Unfortunately, one has to confess at once that no real answer to this question is possible. Any answer would be a merely verbal one. Any answer would be merely tautological. One of the sources to which I referred described consciousness as 'A character belonging to certain processes or events in the living organism which must be regarded as unique and therefore as indefinable in terms of anything else' - you can't define the unique; it is like trying to define the indefinable - 'but which can perhaps be best described as a view of these processes or events as it were from the inside.' The individual is as it were inside what is happening; that is as near as we can get, not to a definition - it is not a definition - but a description of consciousness. Consciousness, therefore, whatever it is, is synonymous with awareness, whatever that may be.

Now the Higher Evolution of man, of the individual, consists in the evolution of his consciousness or awareness. This evolution consists in its passing through successively higher stages - levels - of development. But as we have just seen, consciousness itself is unique and therefore indefinable.

How, therefore, we ask, are its successive stages to be differentiated? If all the stages are consciousness, all, then, are equally unique and indefinable; so how is one unique and indefinable thing to be distinguished from another? The difficulty is really more apparent than real. Consciousness, as we have seen, has been described as 'a view'; as a view of 'certain processes or events in the living organism'. Analogically speaking, therefore, consciousness or awareness is a sort of seeing. We look and we see. Use this idea, use this term 'looking', 'seeing', analogically and that is what consciousness, that is what awareness, is.

Now where there is a view, there is obviously something viewed. Seeing means that there is something which is seen. So we may say that the different stages of development through which consciousness or awareness passes can be distinguished on the basis of their respective objects.

In this way, broadly speaking, there are four degrees or four levels of consciousness, or four stages through which consciousness passes in the course of the whole process of its development. To these four stages we have given certain terms. The terms are more or less provisional; other terms could conceivably be given. The four stages are: first of all, simple consciousness; secondly, self- consciousness; thirdly, transcendental consciousness; and fourthly and lastly, absolute consciousness, which can also be called, perhaps, universal consciousness. The first three could perhaps also be called, alternatively: sense consciousness, corresponding to simple consciousness; subjective consciousness, corresponding to self-consciousness; and objective consciousness, corresponding to transcendental consciousness.

First of all, very briefly, simple consciousness. Simple consciousness is synonymous with perception in the narrower psychological sense of the term. It consists, that is to say, in awareness of sensations experienced through the sense organs as a result of contact with the external world.

This is what simple consciousness is. This form of consciousness - awareness of sensations experienced through the sense organs as a result of contact with the external world - we of course share with the animals.

Secondly, self-consciousness. Here one does not merely perceive. One does not even merely conceive. one perceives that one perceives; one is aware that one is aware. One not only experiences sensations, feelings, emotions, thoughts and volitions, and so on, but is also conscious of oneself as experiencing them. one is, as it were, not immersed in them, identified with them; one has them, one experiences them, but one is able as it were to stand aside and experience oneself as experiencing them, see oneself as seeing them, be aware of oneself as aware of them, conscious of oneself as being conscious of them. This form of consciousness, this reflexive consciousness, consciousness as it were bending back or folding over on itself - this is distinctively human; this, so far as we know, no animal possesses. it is in self-consciousness, therefore, that our humanity distinctively resides.

Thirdly, transcendental consciousness. This goes further still. This, we may say, is awareness of the higher spiritual reality which embraces both oneself and the whole of conditioned existence, that is to say the whole mundane evolutionary process. This transcendental consciousness transcends the whole distinction between subject and object, but though it transcends the distinction between subject and object it is perceived, it is experienced at this stage as an object.

It is, we may say, as though a sort of crack appeared down along the line dividing subject and object, the line where subject and object meet and mutually discriminate each other, and through this crack - which may even become as it were a hole, a relatively large aperture - through this crack shines the light of absolute or universal consciousness. This light, we may say - a narrow beam at first - is the flash of insight in the light of which we see the Transcendental, and the light by which we see the Transcendental is also the light by which or in which, if you like, the Transcendental sees us. In other words, at this stage the light or awareness or consciousness with which we see the Transcendental is identical with the awareness or consciousness with which the Transcendental sees us. In other words, at this stage awareness is to some extent dissociated from, to some extent no longer identified with, the self as distinguished from the object, the non-self; the self and its subjective conditionings, its psychological conditionings. it is for this reason that self- consciousness can also be spoken of as objective consciousness.

Fourthly and lastly, absolute consciousness or universal consciousness. Here subject and object entirely disappear. ...

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