Tag Archives: stream of consciousness

Flowing in the Stream of Consciousness

There is an old saying that you can never enter the same stream twice. This seems kind of odd to the uninitiated especially if you swam in a river or stream often as a kid, so what do we mean here? We have two Buddhist terms that I would like to introduce and discuss here in relation to the steam. The first is impermanence this is understood that everything is in a constant state of change and the second is “dependent arising”. Impermanence is simple and covered in detail here, but dependent arising can be a bit complex. Let’s use the following example of a stream to discover the meaning in dependent arising. We have a stream flowing past us the fresh cool water is clean and clear. As the water flows by it erodes the banks of the stream in some places and deposits the eroded earth in others, it changes constantly. When our stream meets another stream and the two merge and flow on together, soon we have a river. Then at the end of the long river, we often have all the sand or earth carried by the river deposited in the delta where the main river once again divides into smaller streams as it slowly meets the ocean. Once the river has merged with the ocean a new process takes over as the water evaporates into the air becomes clouds and falls back to the earth as rain to be collected by the stream once again. This natural environmental cycle is dependent arising constant and ever-changing based on the impermanence of the surrounding conditions. One part of the process depends on the other and when seen as a whole there is no beginning or end to be found. Take one part out and nothing exists. No start or creation point is then necessary.

“At first practice is like a river rushing through a gorge. In the middle, it’s the river Ganges, smooth and flowing. In the end, it’s where all rivers meet, mother and child.” Tilopa Ganges Mahamudra.

It is here where we realise Dzogrim or that we are a drop of water in the whole ocean.

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It is like this that we can understand our own existence here on earth one big cycle of ever-changing conditions and we can never be the same person twice like we can never enter the same stream or river twice. How do we compare to the river, certainly we are more complex? Here modern science would have to include our store consciousness, that is the sum of all the knowledge, thoughts, and actions we have ever encountered or our stream or consciousness. William James in “Principals of Psychology” used the phrase, stream of consciousness, to describe an unbroken flow of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings in the waking mind.

Buddhist theory calls our store consciousness “Alaya” this is the sum of all our experiences or our karma from all our lives since beginningless time. This Alaya is constantly mixing and interacting with our new life situation. Based on previous actions we decide the new course of action and we cycle through our existence without beginning or end just like the water in the stream. We are never the same person from each moment of mind to the next. The point here is clear we are the result of our actions and ideas, we should be more responsible.

This quote from the physicist Böhm sums it up quite nicely:

“I would say that in my scientific and philosophical work, my main concern has been with understanding the nature of reality in general and of consciousness in particular as a coherent whole, which is never static or complete but which is an unending process of movement and unfoldment….”

D. Bohm, _Wholeness and the Implicate Order_, p.ix

The coherent whole is his comparison for the cycle of dependent arising that is never static or complete. And the unending movement of the river unfolds slowly as new conditions arise in mind.

Modern neuroscientists cannot find the mechanism of how our vast knowledge or memory is stored and then recalled, there are theories but none that are generally agreed upon. There is evidence that certain areas of the brain are associated with certain types of memory but the mechanism is unknown and much of what we know is based on the theory from one man Henry Molaison who has his complete hippocampus removed. After the removal, Henry could not form new long term memories. While this part of the brain certainly plays an important role in memory there is no proof of the storage processes in the brain then the storage could be somewhere else. Just my thoughts but the hippocampus is rather small to store all those memories. Not to mention it’s removal prevented new memories from being formed. The memories formed prior to the operation were still there, showing that the hippocampus is not the storage location.

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Alaya has no specific location it is said to be non-local, or more simply said, space is information, omnipresent or everywhere, like energy. It’s simple and beautiful think of it as a cosmic conscious internet or quantum network, flowing through the universe everywhere and always new. Our entire being changing with every new situation and experience. Like always in Buddhism, this responsibility is our own to decide what direction we take, ask yourself do you want a comedy or tragedy today? The choice and answer is clear, are they not?

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Choose your Own Adventure

More and more every day modern science is coming to terms with what on the outset was an uncomfortable reality. That is that the observer (you and I) play not just an important role in reality or in our universal experience but actually that we are the deciding factor at the centre of it all. I think for the most part modern science has tried to stay an arm’s length away from any of the organised or generally accepted world religions and this is not necessarily a bad thing, while many of the world’s religions seem hellbent on destroying each other and have become so inflexible because of dogma. There is, however, one notable exception the Buddha Dharma. The Buddha Dharma is without a doubt the most peaceful, humanistic, and scientific of all organised religions. Please note that I personally do not subscribe to the fact that Buddhism is a religion, and I object to the suffix of “ism” as well, but common convention begs to differ and I use the term religion here in this light. If science was ever looking for or in need of a partner to explain the world as it is, the Buddha Dharma is up for the challenge. Why do I say that? Certainly not just because I am convinced of that myself, but because a growing number of scientists are also convinced or at least make comments that lean more and more in this direction. This is not an easy thing to do as science tends to push back on individuals who cross the perceived line of separation between science and religion.

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Let’s examine and discuss three quotes that I have found inspiring and relevant to this discussion.

R.C. Henry professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University in a 2005 essay is quoted as saying:

A fundamental conclusion of the new physics also acknowledges that the observer creates the reality. As observers, we are personally involved with the creation of our own reality. Physicists are being forced to admit that the universe is a “mental” construction.

Pioneering physicist Sir James Jeans wrote

“The stream of knowledge is heading toward a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter, we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter. Get over it, and accept the inarguable conclusion. The universe is immaterial-mental and spiritual.

– Eugene Wigner, theoretical physicist and mathematician said:

“It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.”

So how is this relevant to the Buddha Dharma? The underlying theme to these three quotes can be summarized in the following points and the following ideas:

The role of the observer and consciousness in the perceived reality of the universe.
The pointing out or pointing to the idea that Subject and Object are interdependent and non separable.
1. The mental processes the observer goes through when perceiving something is described by Buddhist Theory of Perception and is traditionally called the study of the five Skandhas. Skandha is Sanskrit for heap, collection, or grouping. “The five skandhas are form, sensation, perception, activity, consciousness. A form can arise in the mind or outside of the mind. This form gives rise to a sensation, which gives rise to perception, followed by activity (mental or physical), and lastly consciousness. In the Buddha’s explanation, the five skandhas occur one after the other, very rapidly. They are not a continuous stream but rather a series of discrete or discernible moments. A form arises or appears, then there is a sensation, then perception, then activity, then consciousness.” Thank you to Americanbuddhist.net for this description, the full article can be read here. I personally find that the activity phase of this process is the most interesting, it is here where we colour the perceived experience with a combination of all the impressions in our store consciousness and immediately decide if what we perceive is good or bad. This is the very basis of aversion or attraction, this is what keeps us busy our whole lives running to or away from the things we see. Each and every time we perceive something the process of the five skandhas is repeated without stopping over and over again and we may even experience multiple events overlapping one another. Each individual instance may be named “a moment of mind or consciousness” and many moments of mind strung together is best described as our “Stream of Consciousness”. Our consciousness directs our awareness from one form or arising to another. We are very clearly caught up in a process of observation, judging or evaluating and then acting on all phenomena that we in one way or another come into contact within the universe.

2. The interdependence of subject and object are central to many philosophical discussions within the different schools of Buddhism. One can summarise the major point here with the age-old question, what came first the chicken or the egg? The answer is rather simple you simply cannot have one without the other therefore it is irrelevant as to what came first when we must have both. So to go a little deeper the thought process goes like this: if we have a universe of objects with no subjects we should have to ask what would be the point of it be? All these wonderful things with nothing to enjoy them. Conclusion, objects without subjects are meaningless. On the flip side, what use is a subjective universe full of subjects with no objects to perceive or enjoy? It simply makes no sense to have one without the other. Consciousness requires something to be conscious “of”. So we have this absolutely amazing universe and we are here to discover and enjoy it.

The only thing missing here is action. What do I mean by that? Well in Buddhism we learn that not only are subject and object inseparable co arising phenomena, so are subject, object, and action. Action is important as if there are only subjects and objects and nothing happening well this is just boring. Luckily there is unlimited action in our universe, things never stop moving and changing. Everything is in a constant state of flux as each and every time we interact with something the “Whole of the Universe” is changed as it reacts to our play with it. These are the views held by the Madhyamika school of Buddhist Philosophy.

I firmly believe that we are evidence that the universe is conscious of itself and furthermore, we are constantly creating and choosing our past, present, and our future and we then choose how we see or interpret it as good or bad, in the way the Buddha Dharma has shown us. If you can agree that we are indeed choosing our adventure, lets all consciously decide to choose a positive and joyful adventure for the benefit of all beings.